“The next one next week is the biggest one in the whole season, so that’s what we’ve got to focus on now.”
– Notre Dame junior center Jack Cooley on the upcoming NCAA Tournament
Cooley’s post-game comments following Notre Dame’s not-that-close 14-point loss to Louisville are representative of most present-day college basketball fans, casual and otherwise.
His lament cloaked in hope was preceded by similar comments from Syracuse head coach Jim Boehiem in the wake of his team’s upset semi-finals loss to Cincinnati two hours earlier, and will likely be echoed by either UNC’s Roy Williams or Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski later this weekend, and by any other NCAA Tournament-bound coach who falls short in his conference tournament.
(Of course, you won’t hear a conference tournament champion offer how little the crown matters.)
Mike Brey’s oft-stated goal, “to get to Saturday night” remains elusive. Notre Dame hasn’t played for the Big East Championship in its 17-year conference history, but to be blunt, most Irish fans don’t care. Their focus is elsewhere.
Already deemed a success by any basketball fan with a discerning eye, the 2012 team’s only remaining goal should be to “get to next weekend.”
Two wins this week would put the Irish among the nation’s final 16 teams for the first time since 2003. Prior to that, Notre Dame hadn’t visited that relative commonality across the collegiate landscape since 1987. Now a Sweet 16 berth for a team that in December seemed destined for meaningless NIT games in front of 2,000 dazed fans in South Bend would be a feat to celebrate.
The Irish have likely reached their potential this season. They seem to have hit a plateau, if not regressed. But their third-place regular season finish was eight spots higher than I had forecast, and I wasn’t alone in this error. And the suggestion of a semi-finals appearance in the Big East tournament at any point over the season’s opening six weeks would have been ludicrous.
Underdog Irish had one magical moment already this season
But success breeds increased expectations. Repeated failures breed frustration, and Notre Dame basketball fans have experienced plenty of both. More troubling than NCAA Tournament losses to peer/dangerous teams such as Winthrop, Washington State, and Florida State, or to also-ran Old Dominion (don’t get me started) is this unfortunate truth:
Since losing in the Sweet 16 in 2003, Notre Dame has beaten the following teams in the NCAA Tournament: George Mason and Akron.
That’s it, and that’s why Irish fans don’t show up en masse to support a team that plays smart, shares the basketball, and gives all they have nearly every night. That’s why this column will be read by about 40 percent of the website’s subscribers vs. my next installment regarding a 17-year-old DE/TE prospect that will be clicked on by a number near the 90 percentile.
The reality is that back-to-back wins in “the tournament that matters” is unlikely for Brey’s Irish. Maybe not one year from now, but this week to be sure. The 2012-13 Irish will be quicker, faster, deeper, more explosive, still young, and likely better than this year’s team, provided ego remains an afterthought.
But in a men’s basketball season during which everything in South Bend defied likeliness and reason, it’s okay to aim high and shoot for a final pleasant surprise this week.
The odds are great; their chances are small, but the 2012 Irish have one more chance to win over us all.