March 29, 2015

So, the sun really did come up Sunday morning in Cleveland for the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

There might have been some question about that, considering the stinging, sudden, late-night daggers absorbed in the Irish elimination from the 2015 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship. That happened just seconds after Mike Brey’s squad had controlled the action for long stretches against an unbeaten and top-ranked Kentucky team judged to be one of the all-time greats in the history of college basketball.

The glint that required sunglasses Sunday actually came from a Notre Dame program that hasn’t shined this brightly in March in four decades–if ever.

Conference warfare–both in the BIG EAST and Atlantic Coast conferences–has changed the dynamics of both the regular season and the postseason for Notre Dame basketball. Once the Irish gained a grasp of what those leagues were about, they proved on an ongoing basis to be consistently solid and at times spectacular. That dates back to Brey’s first season in South Bend when he, All-American Troy Murphy and current assistant coach Martin Ingelsby hung a banner in the Joyce Center as 2001 BIG EAST West Division champs. In the years to come Notre Dame stored up an impressive list of regular-season victories over the BIG EAST big boys.

Still, big headlines in March proved elusive. The Irish found their way to the league tournament semifinals plenty of times but could never close the deal. Though the current Notre Dame players knew or cared little about past NCAA exhibitions, Brey carried that late-season record that featured a handful of NCAA exits against lower-seeded foes.

Then came 2015.

Built from the ashes of the cold Irish mess that ended at 15-17 in 2013-14, this version made mucho madness in March.

It began in Greensboro where Notre Dame achieved an unlikely daily double, eliminating first Duke on Friday and then North Carolina in the Saturday title match–both nights in front of thousands of fans dressed in blue (and not the Notre Dame version). As Brey noted, it marked a shirts-and-hats achievement. The only reason the first Irish conference title didn’t merit more attention was that 18 hours later that story was superseded by the NCAA bracket announcement.

It continued the next weekend in Pittsburgh where the Irish pulled off NCAA wins over Northeastern and Butler (in overtime).

It moved on to Cleveland for the Midwest Regional where most of the storylines revolved around Kentucky’s pursuit of perfection. Notre Dame created its own storyline Thursday night with a scintillating effort in dispatching a red-hot and favored Wichita State unit with an amazing 18-of-24 second-half shooting exhibition.

If ever a team earned style points in defeat, it came in Notre Dame’s 68-66 Saturday night loss to the Wildcats. Brey’s team played the `Cats toe to toe for 40 minutes–and then some. Pat Connaughton rebounded amidst the trees that comprised the Kentucky front line. Zach Auguste operated fearlessly around the rim for 20 points. Jerian Grant did his usual thing, running the show and finding open men (48 hours after his 11 assists against Wichita State), while unflappable Steve Vasturia made all the little plays and knocked down all kinds of key shots.

Maybe the most optimistic of Kentucky fans anticipated an easy `Cat win. But the largest cable television audience ever for a college basketball game (9.0 rating on TBS) couldn’t have been expecting another Big Blue blowout. Notre Dame had no interest in that.

The Irish went 28 minutes without a turnover–and that’s unheard of. Unfortunately for Notre Dame fans, Kentucky hit its last nine field-goal attempts–also unheard of.

USA Today called the game “sports perfection.” Wrote Chris Chase, “. . . the previous 57 games in the tournament — some of them good, some of them okay, some of them terrible — almost mean nothing after watching Kentucky-Notre Dame. It was everything a great sporting event should be: Tight, brilliantly played and, most importantly, complete and utter fun.”

Irish athletic teams often seem to play their best in the underdog role. Maybe no two Irish sports teams in a year have impressed more observers in losing efforts than Notre Dame did this season in basketball versus Kentucky and last fall in football at Florida State. In both cases the Irish came within eyelashes of victory away from home against top-rated opponents with longstanding win streaks–with both foes branded as teams for the ages.

The Notre Dame-Kentucky game ended a truly remarkable three-week March run that absolutely raised the profile of the Notre Dame basketball program. Never have the Irish displayed more March energy and finished on such an uptick.

“Notre Dame this year reminded us of what’s great about college basketball,” said Jason Capel of the ACC Digital Network.

It certainly won’t be easy to replace Grant and Connaughton, the Bobbsey twins who comprised both the heart and soul of this Irish team. Both at 6-5, in many ways they defied position descriptions based on their abilities to shoot, score, rebound and distribute. They set the tone for an unselfish method of play that suggested there could be a whole `nother way to win a basketball game.

Irish fans can look forward to seeing Vasturia blossom as one of the best all-around players in the country. Auguste this year became a much more consistent all-around post player and presumably will continue that growth as a senior. Demetrius Jackson played lights-out in Greensboro and was the best player on the floor against Wichita State. Look for Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem to likely fill the Connaughton and Grant starting slots–and wait until that duo has the chance to exhibit its skills on a full-time basis.

Into the list of returnees Brey will blend three November signees–6-8 power forward Elijah Burns, 6-4 wing Rex Pflueger and 6-8 shooting forward Matt Ryan. The Irish head coach noted in Cleveland his hope that the 2015 Irish success translates on the recruiting trail.

No one can predict the reality show that comprises sports, where the long college basketball slog goes from October into early April. So it won’t be long before Brey will begin ramping up the chemistry in hopes of another extended run a year from now.

Notre Dame’s head coach is big on karma, and he’ll work to brew up another positive batch of that in the months to come. The Irish can’t be that far away–indeed, they own three victories over teams in the 2015 NCAA Final Four (two versus Duke, one against Michigan State) and nearly slayed the giant that is Kentucky.

So, that sunshine in Cleveland Sunday morning apparently was no accident. It reflected ever so positively off an Irish basketball program that marched through March in 2015 in unprecedented fashion.

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director