Notre Dame made its last run in the NCAA Tournament in mid-March, 2003.
The team’s Sweet 16 showing that year included a last second win over UW-Milwaukee and a wire-to-wire handling of higher seed Illinois two days later (photo above).
Since, times have been tough for Irish fans looking for a reason to celebrate anywhere near the hardwood on St. Patrick’s Day, and yesterday, less than two hours after learning his program’s destination for 2012, Irish head coach Mike Brey was in no mood for a reminder of his team’s fizzling finishes.
“Who said coaches are judged on tournaments?” Brey said in response to a direct question to that effect. “What rule book is that in? Is that your rule book? What's your record? I need to see your playing stats before you start doing that.
“We want to play deep in the tournament. Don't get me wrong. We'll be -- we want to advance. You know, this group earned this thing. They're just not happy to be there. And I think there's a little edge about them because we wanted to play to Saturday night in New York, and we weren't able to get there.
“You know, there's going to be a lot invested in this thing,” he continued. “You just don't celebrate the regular season run we had. And I think there's a little edge about us because we were disappointed we couldn't get to Saturday night, and that may help us concentrate a little bit more.”
Conversely, Friday’s opening opponent Xavier has thrived of late in the Tournament That Matters setting, reaching the Sweet 16 four times since Notre Dame’s last visit, and advancing to the Elite 8 twice.
Both schools have been NCAA Tournament regulars, Xavier has qualified in 11 consecutive seasons out of the tough-as-nails Atlantic-10; Notre Dame in eight of Brey’s 12 seasons in what is generally (if not this season) the nation’s best basketball conference.
Four Musketeers coaches have presided over the current run of 11 straight. Included among them was the late Skip Prosser, whose Xavier squad lost to Notre Dame in a first round meeting in March, 2001, Brey’s first season at the helm.
“I thought about that a lot when I saw that (matchup) flash up,” Brey said of Prosser. “Great guy, one of the special guys in the business that we lost.”
Prosser moved onto Wake Forest following his run in Cincinnati. Subsequent successors took their talents from Xavier to a major conference school as well, with Thad Matta landing a job at new power Ohio State and Sean Miller at traditional basketball heavy, Arizona.
Current Musketeers coach Chris Mack took Xavier to the Sweet 16 in his first year, the Round of 32 in his second (2010) with an opening game exit (technically the “second round”) their fate in 2011.
Brey Bristled, but…
The question posed to Brey, “Head coaches are judged on tournament success, but is this an exception?” echoed sentiments of the majority of modern college basketball fans.
Die-hards and traditionalists (and ex coaches/players) appreciate Brey’s remarkable run of success over 12 years, especially the last six that includes five tournament berths with four Big East semi-finals appearances. This solid six-year run followed an unfortunate three-year familiarity with the NIT (the National Invitational Tournament, aka, the “Not Invited Tournament” has gone from well-respected to scorned status over the last 30-plus years).
His best NCAA Tournament efforts came in Seasons 1 through 3 at the helm, posting a 4-3 mark with the aforementioned Sweet 16 berth that was preceded in 2002 by a painfully close second round loss to #1 overall Duke (a game in which the Irish led by seven near the 6-minute mark).
As a result, the bulk of the Irish fan base, while recognizing Notre Dame’s regular season efforts, laments the annual mid-March swoon the program has endured.
An Irish fan and alum, Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick does not share that opinion.
“There’s a reason people put emphasis on the NCAA Tournament. It is what it is. But I think it’s really important not to let it diminish success in this conference,” Swarbrick told Irisheyes.com last March. “This is a different (entity). If you win (in the Big East), you’ve accomplished something extraordinary. To win at the level this team has, as you pointed out, you can’t lose sight of that.
“I would argue it’s fundamentally different than any other conference in the country,” he continued of Brey’s run in the Big East. “The team that makes an occasional run out of another conference is achieving something important and special, but to sustain success in the Big East is something to be celebrated.”
Brey has done that, winning 12 (of 18), 14, 8, 10, 14, and 13 games over the last six years in conference play, fourth-best during that span in among Big East teams (and second-best over the last two years).
He’s protected his home court (paging coaches Willingham, Weis, and Kelly...you're wanted in the Egregious Home Losses Aisle) with a remarkable 96-7 mark over the last six seasons, the third best in the nation.
But bracket success, or in layman’s terms: playing past the first weekend, has eluded his program. For Swarbrick, success as defined by performance in mid-March might not be irrelevant, but its certainly nonsensical.
“It’s all related to the same question – because of the success of the post-season tournament in college basketball, it’s diminished the attention on the regular season. Conversely, achievements in the regular season get lost a little bit and failures in the post-season get magnified in an extraordinary way.”
Regardless of the events of this weekend, Notre Dame overachieved in 2012.
But the best way to illustrate that achievement on a national, and yes, Notre Dame-centric scale, would be to celebrate with a win or two this weekend as well.