The Big Dance: Irish Pride & Woe

Today is Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey’s version of Christmas Morning in March, just as it will be for 67 other programs in college basketball. Selection Sunday is when validation is given for five months of good to excellent work.

This is Notre Dame's first class to make the NCAA Tournament all four undergrad years since the one recruited in 1986. With head coach Mike Brey, from left to right: Jack Cooley, Tom Knight, Scott Martin, Joey Brooks and Mike Broghammer.

This will be the first four-year graduating class at Notre Dame to see the Fighting Irish men’s basketball program make the NCAA Tournament all four years since 1986-90 with the four-man group of guards Joe Fredrick and Jamere Jackson, forward Keith Robinson and center Scott Paddock.

However, Notre Dame basketball and the NCAA Tournament are a a bittersweet experience.

The pride is that only eight other programs have officially made more appearances in the Big Dance than the Irish. Some “vacated” a bid in certain years because of NCAA sanctions. For example, although we list 52 appearances for Kentucky, the NCAA recognizes 51 because the Wildcats had to vacate their 1988 appearance due to impending probation.

Prior to this year’s Selection Sunday, here is the list for most NCAA Tournament appearances, including vacancies, per Wikipedia:

1. Kentucky — 52, with 15 Final Fours and eight national titles.
2t. UCLA — 43, with 18 Final Fours and 11 national titles.
2t. North Carolina — 43, with 18 Final Fours and five national titles.
4. Kansas — 42, with 14 Final Fours and three national titles.
5. Louisville — 39, with nine Final Fours and two national titles.
6t. Indiana — 36, with eight Final Fours and five national titles.
6t. Duke — 36, with 15 Final Fours and four national titles.
8. Syracuse — 35, with four Final Fours and one national title.
9t. Villanova — 32, with four Final Fours and one national title.
9t. Notre Dame — 32, with one Final Four and zero national titles.

Again, the NCAA actually recognizes 31 for Villanova because it had to vacate the 1971 runner-up finish to UCLA when it was discovered that All-American Howard Porter had already signed with an agent prior to the tourney. So technically, Notre Dame has the No. 9 spot to itself.

Notice something about this top 10? All but Notre Dame are “basketball schools.” The identity of an athetics program is centered usually either on football or basketball (or hockey in the case of Boston College).

That’s not to say that you can’t on occasion have great seasons in the other sport. Louisville won the Sugar Bowl this season. The Florida Gators won a couple of national titles in 2006 and 2007, one of them over Ohio State, and Michigan excelled in the late 1980s and then with the “Fab Five,” although they too have seen their championship game appearances “vacated.”

Notre Dame became the first school (and then Florida) to win the national title in football and two months later make the Final Four (1977-78). Despite the negative cycle that enveloped the Irish football program from 1994-2011, it always will be known as a “football school.”

Thus, there is pride that Notre Dame hoops has fared as well as it has to make the Big Dance so consistently. And therein is also the disappointing aspect, or the woe to balance the pride: Notre Dame is the leader with most NCAA Tournament appearances without a national title.

The Irish are 31-36 overall, including 2-4 in consolation games that used to be played past the first round from the 1950s through 1975. All the other schools ahead of it in appearances, plus Villanova, have won national titles. So have several other schools not far behind it in total appearances — Connecticut, Marquette and Arkansas.

It was in 1953 that Notre Dame lifted its ban on postseason basketball and accepted a bid to its first NCAA Tournament (football would do the same with bowls in 1969).

Notre Dame’s large number of appearances was bolstered by the fact it was an independent and the tourney took only 22 to 25 teams from the 1950s until 1974. In those days, only the conference winner was allowed to be invited, but Notre Dame as an independent could still receive an at-large berth — as it did in 1965 with a pedestrian 15-11 record.

In 1971, the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams in the final AP poll (USC and South Carolina) could not be invited to the NCAA Tournament because they did not win their respective conferences — yet 19-7 Notre Dame went as an at-large because of its independent status. That’s what made being an independent so attractive back then (but not after the tournament field expanded).

In its 32 NCAA Tournament appearances, Notre Dame has posted two consecutive victories only seven times: 1953, 1954, 1958, 1978, 1979, 1987 and 2003. It won three straight once, in 1978, for its lone advancement to the Final Four. It now would have to win four to achieve that feat.

After upsetting No. 1 and defending national champ Indiana in 1954 to advance to the Elite Eight, Notre Dame was the clear-cut favorite to capture the national title. But it suffered the ultimate letdown with a loss to Penn State in the round of eight.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, one agonizing loss after another in the second round eliminated Notre Dame.

• Losing in 1971 to Drake in overtime to destroy Austin Carr’s national title dreams.
• Michigan in 1974 upsetting a 25-2 Irish team led by first-round picks John Shumate, Adrian Dantley and Gary Brokaw that defeated three of the four teams in the Final Four.
• North Carolina in 1977 overcoming a 14-point second-half deficit and rallying for a two-point win in the closing seconds.
• BYU’s Danny Ainge in 1981 driving the length of the court and scoring for a 51-50 victory, ending the terrific Kelly Tripucka-Orlando Woolridge-Tracy Jackson era.

Oh, and there's been much, much more since then:

Then there was No. 14 seed Arkansas-Little Rock’s stunning first-round upset of the No. 3 seed Irish in 1986. Ole Miss rallying in the second round in 2001, No. 1 Duke doing the same in 2002 (only to be upset by Indiana in the next round), the loss to Winthrop in the 2007 first round, Old Dominion’s upset in the first round in 2010, No. 10 seed Florida State putting a 71-57 hurting on No. 2 seed Notre Dame in 2011, and even last year’s 67-63 loss to Xavier while blowing a 10-point second-half lead.

The dreadful apparitions of the past remain. Nevertheless, it’s a new year and a new opportunity to create better NCAA Tournament memories. In a way, it sounds like being a Chicago Cubs fan.

Skip To Comments

  • Mike Brey has said many times that the East has made him as a coach. I know he is not the lone ranger in this regard, but without more post season success, it will be the NCAA's that might end up defining him as a coach.

  • We need to somehow win two games this year. I am hoping we pull a surprise and get to the second weekend.

    Two time Poster of The Week, 2011 and 2013.

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  • After making the sweet 16 in 2003 Notre Dame has lost 2 in a row and 6 of the last 8 NCAA tournament games. Hopefully we get some favorable matchups this year.

  • This team is hard to watch. Ugly basketball. Admire the tenacity and effort, but, nonetheless, ugly basketball that manages to win on some level.

  • That's about as succinct (and accurate) a description I have found for this year's team.

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    I may not be pretty, but I'm fast..... POTW 1/31/11 - 2/6/11

  • hemy

    There is another thread started by '85 complaining about the
    recent urge to use Alabama as the standard by which ND football
    is measured. In response, Lou posted that its not about saying
    that "we want to emulate 'Bama" but acknowledging that Alabama
    has become the measuring stick for college football success as in when
    Brian Kelly says "its the kind of program we want to become."

    Contrast that to ND basketball--no one, no one is saying "well,
    Duke is the measuring stick for ND basketball and we should be
    making every effort to be consistently as good during the
    regular season and in all post-season tournaments as Duke."
    And, I wonder why. I wonder why Kelly's mantra is "we want
    to win them all" while Brey seems content with "I'm excited
    about playing."

    There is a measurable, quantative and qualitative difference
    in the two expectations and maybe, just maybe, that makes
    all the difference.

    This post was edited by hemy 16 months ago

  • I think this team is actually playing its best "team" basketball. That being said, Cooley has cooled off tremendously which doesnt necessatily bode well. If he can regain his midseason form, with the contributions of Sherman and Knight, and Connaughton, we could definitely win 2 games depending on seeding and match up. Go Irish!

  • Agreed, hemy, but the standard also arises from past achievement.

    ND set an immense standard 90 years ago with Rockne, Leahy elevated it, and then Parseghian, Devine and Holtz kept feeding the beast ... until they too were eventually swallowed up by the expectations.

    What kind of history is there in ND basketball relative to NCAA Tournament success? Since 1959, a span of 53 years, you've won back to back games in the Big Dance four times, or once per 13.25 years. How many Final Fours? One in 60 years, when they first started going to the tourney.

    It's sort of like Michigan State football fans saying, "If our coach doesn't get us into the Rose Bowl, he's a failure." Oh, yeah? On what basis? ND fans would laugh at MSU for having such unrealistic standards. Well, that's what fans at Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, etc. have about ND fans who clamor for more than Sweet 16. They would think they're delusional.

    Now, there is nothing wrong with striving toward such excellence. But there are only about 10 truly elite football programs and history, and ND happens to be one of them. There are about the same number in basketball, and ND doesn't happen to be one of them. You just hope you can catch lightning in a bottle maybe once per decade.

  • hemy


    Your numbers are undeniable and your point very sound:
    "historically, ND is not an 'elite' basketball program like it
    is an 'elite' football program." However, in another thread
    ("Why does basketball program get a pass") you mentioned
    that. today, among the royals are "Duke, Syracuse and

    While I concur, something to consider is that during the
    1960's, 1970's and very early '80's, Duke was not head
    and shoulders above ND, until Beoheim's arrival, Syracuse
    was just another eastern team, and in Kentucky, it was
    anathema to speak of Louisville in the same breath as
    royal blue Kentucky. And, in truth, Louisville was very
    much not in Kentucky's class until Denny Crum arrived.

    I guess what I am saying is that expectation-wise, it
    seems appropriate for ND, starting at the top with
    Jenkins, Swarbrick and Brey, to start now---as
    we enter the ACC--the process of saying: "Duke
    is the program we seek to emulate. We want
    our program to be as consistently good as Duke.

    I guess what I am saying is that if Brian Kelly can say
    "we want to be like 'Bama, from recruiting, to conditioning,
    to facilities, to on-field wins" we should raise the bar
    and say "we want to be like Duke, from recruiting, to conditioning,
    to facilities, to on-court wins." That's the standard and
    we won't rest until it is achieved.

    And, it seems it would be easier to strive to be like a
    Duke than to strive to be like a 'Bama.

    Good thread.

    This post has been edited 2 times, most recently by hemy 16 months ago

  • Excellent post, Hemy. History does not create irreversible patterns. Mindsets do.

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    I may not be pretty, but I'm fast..... POTW 1/31/11 - 2/6/11

  • Hemy,

    With all due respect, Duke and Louisville were very good in basketball starting in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, more so than Notre Dame. But here's something else that needs to be remembered. There were 22 to 25 teams taken in the NCAA Tournament back then. Only the conference champ could go.

    As late as 1974, Maryland finished in the top 5 with guys like Len Elmore, Tom McMillen and John Lucas. But it lost one of the epic games in college history, 103-100 to NC State — the national champ that year — in the ACC final and therefore could not play in the NCAA Tournament by its rules back then. As an independent, ND had a huge advantage and could even go with a 15-11 record one year. That's why the number of NCAA Tournament appearances is a bit misleading.

    Duke played in the preeminent "basketball conference", and became a basketball school, first winning a league title in 1938, four more in the 1940s, and then starting with Dick Groat in the 1950s really started establishing itself in the sport. In the 1960s it made it to the Elite 8 four times, and the Final Four in 1963, 1964 and 1966 — and again, only one team could go per conference. That's why Dean Smith used to bristle about critics saying he couldn't "win the big one," because back then just getting into the tourney was "a big one."

    Starting with Peck Heckman in 1944, I think Louisville set an NCAA record with 46 straight non-losing seasons. It was kind of to basketball with Kentucky what Auburn is to football in Alabama, but make no mistake, it was a "basketball school" more so than Notre Dame. This included winning a "national title" of forms in an NAIB Tournament, the then prestigious NIT in 1956 and advancing to the FInal 4 in 1959.

  • I just don't believe that Cooley has fully recovered from his recent ailment back from that loss to Marquette 2 weeks ago. Yet they've pulled out wins with overall good board play and timely arrival of hothanded Pat shooting. We're not going to see similar pressure play ala Louisville(that's their unique MO) so I feel that this "team" can advance pass 2 wins - be ugly control the boards AND win. GO IRISH!

  • Lou, I'm still not seeing Duke as heads and shoulders above Notre Dame from the early 40's to the early 80's. I have them both winning at about a 64% clip. Duke had that nice mid-60's run with Art Heyman, but they were never spoken of in the same breath with Kentucky, Indiana, Kansas and North Carolina. Louisville was a nice 70% program until Denny Crum came, but they were fishing in smaller ponds. Once Crum and Pitino came on board, they easily moved into elite company, as did Duke with Krzyzewski.

    Here's the key difference for me: up until 1968, Notre Dame played in the old fieldhouse. While that grand old edifice is held dearly in the memory of many, as a basketball arena it was woefully substandard, a borderline embarrassment. And that represented the commitment of the school to basketball. Of course we will have an inferiority complex to other programs. It has been much worse than the red-headed step child to the football program.

    There may not be room for greatness of two programs within one university. Can we not then at least aspire to Michigan and Ohio St.?

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    I may not be pretty, but I'm fast..... POTW 1/31/11 - 2/6/11

  • Ham,

    Not head and shoulders above Duke, but there was, as you point out, the interest level was more pronounced at Duke, where they did have three Final Fours in the 1960s.

    The Fieldhouse had its charm, but the recruiting picked up with the D.C. connection once ground was broken for the Athletic & Convocation Center, which opened in 1968, then there was at least a sign of a greater commitment.

    The 1950s saw the face of college basketball change, literally, when the elite black players began coming to the forefront — Wilt, Bill Russell, Oscar, Elgin Baylor, etc. and even Tom Hawkins at ND. Then in the 1960s, it translated to a huge boon in new arenas all across the country, including the ACC and Pauley Pavilion at UCLA. That's when college basketball, in general, started generating more of a buzz, especially after the UCLA-Houston game in 1968 at the Astrodome.

  • Yes, Lou, ND made the move with the ACC, which was virtually a necessity, as fewer and fewer teams would have made the trip to play in that old barn (probably the most intimate basketball experience imaginable). It's now a 50+ year old house, and probably pales in comparison to many programs, but what are the economics of a new build? If they can't fill this one, how cost effective would a new one be, as it would not come with any guarantees that the program will step forward. I'm guessing we could set our clocks to have this discussion every year, as we seem to have done the last few. I think a certain kind of torpor has set in. The program will continue to be solid but unspectacular. It could be worse.

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    I may not be pretty, but I'm fast..... POTW 1/31/11 - 2/6/11

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