The team must do better in March.
Mike Brey's Irish are the second winningest team in Big East play over the last two seasons; the third-best over the last seven dating back to 2006-07. They've been especially consistent over the last four seasons, beating good teams on the road, reigning supreme at home, and though it always ends under the glare of Friday night's lights, serving as the only conference team to make a run to the Big East Tournament semi-finals in each of the last four seasons.
But that regular season success is taken for grants by many, even dismissed by a healthy chunk of the program's followers.
Brey, his staff, and the players that toil each day throughout the journey, feel otherwise, though no current member of the Irish has ever been relegated to the meaningless NIT.
"I never want to take these days for granted," said Brey of his rejuvenated troops. "Quite frankly they're spoiled. They have no idea how some other programs live."
Notre Dame lived outside the tournament for a decade prior to Brey's arrival. It likewise spent three straight seasons in NIT purgatory during his tenure (2004-06, plus another in 09). The ship has since been righted, with the current graduating seniors the first Notre Dame class to never miss an NCAA Tournament since *Joe Frederick and Jamere Jackson in 1990.
(*Note: This way-back machine moment dedicated to Irish fans that still know the "ACC" refers not to a conference, but to the Athletic and Convocation Center.)
The same graduating class, however, has won just one tournament game, that against #15 seed Akron -- the result of a great Notre Dame regular season and #2 seed at tournament time prior to a second-round blowout loss to #6 seed Florida State.
"I think we're all approaching it as pretty much a first-round championship game, it is," said junior guard Eric Atkins. "I think that's the only thing we're focused on, and that's what we're going to get ready for."
Atkins came to a program that made the tournament the previous season and in three of its last four. But in what is now a seven-season run with six tournament appearances, its a program with but two first round wins to its credit: George Mason in 2008 in addition to the aforementioned 2011 victory over the Zips.
First-round failure tends to overshadow several months of solid, at times top tier basketball.
"I think it just changes our mentality because we have been here so many times, but last year the fact that we didn't get out the first round (a last-seconds loss to Xavier), it ups the ante a little bit for this first-round game against Iowa State for us."
Not to mention for the team's weary mid-March masses.
Against the ArcOnly three of college basketball's 345 teams scored more points per game than Iowa State this season: tournament qualifier Northwestern State (81.0), tournament qualifier (and fellow Dayton, Ohio participant) Iona (80.7), and #1 seed Indiana (80.0).
The Cyclones averaged a robust 79.6 points per contest -- or a full 1.3 more than Duke, and nine more than the Irish.
The three-point shot is Iowa State's chief method, as head coach Fred Hoiberg's squad led the nation with 9.8 three-point buckets made per game, launching an astonishing 878 treys over 33 games this season. (Notre Dame shot just 600).
"They shoot the three-point shot so much, I made a little comparison…when we played Villanova here (January 30, a 65-60 ND win), they were coming off two (upset) wins vs. Syracuse and Louisville and they were shooting the heck out of the ball, and we really had to defend the arc. And we did."
Villanova hit just three triples that evening and only squeezed off 11 attempts. In their two wins vs. the Orange and Cardinals -- two zone defensive teams Brey referenced -- Villanova hit 15 of 42 from long range.
"I think we're going to have to be really ready to guard the three-point line against an explosive offensive team."
Notre Dame finished fifth in Big East play defending the three-point shot, limiting teams to 31.1 percent. Against the Cyclones approach, the challenge is as much mental as physical.
"I think team (defensive) awareness as a group, we've been pretty good at that," said Brey of a key to guarding the arc. "We've been able to digest a scouting report and for the most part, make (three-point shooting) teams more two-point shooting teams; chase teams off the arc.
"Overall, we've been pretty good when we had to take away the arc."
The Cyclones won seven of their last 11 to conclude the regular season; the Irish eight of their last 12.
Both Iowa State (Kansas) and Notre Dame (Louisville) advanced to their conference's semi-finals round and lost to an eventual #1 NCAA seed.