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.