Notre Dame seeks to revise discouraging NCAA tourney history
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Not much has gone right for Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament since being trounced by Arizona in a Sweet 16 game in 2003.
The Fighting Irish have won only two games in six tournament appearances since then. Five of those losses came when the Irish were the higher-seeded team, four were by double digits. Winthrop, Old Dominion and Xavier are among the teams that have ousted Notre Dame.
The Irish (29-5) don't want to hear about any of that.
"We still want to rewrite history here at Notre Dame," leading scorer Jerian Grant said. "I feel like we've done something so far, but just to be able to go to the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, get a chance to play against Kentucky and do something special there would mean a lot."
Notre Dame basketball doesn't have a storied history like its football program. Its biggest claim to fame was ending UCLA's 88-game winning streak in 1974 with a 71-70 upset. The next biggest accomplishment was the 1978 Final Four team with a roster that featured eight future NBA players, including Bill Laimbeer and Orlando Woolridge. The next biggest achievement might have been winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament this past Saturday.
"I've never taken a team into the NCAA Tournament off of a tournament championship in our league, and so I think that gives you a whole other level of believing," coach Mike Brey said.
The basketball team has always been overshadowed by football, with alumni demanding the school avoid joining a conference in that sport. Because of that, Notre Dame stayed independent in basketball until joining the Big East in 1995.
"We didn't join a league soon enough. Then we joined a league. Then we switched leagues," Brey said. "It's been kind of an erratic basketball history, as far as, where do our fans follow us, who are our rivals? What's our identity?"
The Irish enjoyed some success in the Big East, but that didn't help in the NCAA Tournament. Irish players, even those who have been part of past NCAA Tournament disappointments, say they're not worried about earlier failures. Forward Pat Connaughton said this year's Irish have shown they are different.
"We wanted to establish ourselves as a completely different team, almost like a reinvented program," he said. "We wanted it to be different. We wanted to do things that this program has never done and so far in the regular season and the ACC Tournament we have accomplished that. Moving forward, we want to do the same things. We want to do things this program has never done."
Brey has accomplished much in his 15 seasons at Notre Dame, leading the Irish to 11 20-win seasons and 10 NCAA Tournament appearances. He also was named Big East coach of the year three times and was selected national coach of the year in 2011. The criticism of him, though, has been that his teams don't play well in the NCAA Tournament.
"I'm at a point in my career, I don't dwell on it. Maybe I would be if I was younger," he said.
Brey said he is confident this year's team is poised to do better because it is mentally tougher, believes in itself and has momentum.
"The thing we're doing different is we're going into this thing after winning a championship, and that's maybe the biggest thing. We handled our league tournament at another level. I think that gives us a great chance to do more," he said.
Irish players say they just need to keep playing unselfishly and fearlessly. After opening against Northeastern (23-11) on Thursday, potential opponents include Butler, Indiana, Kansas and No. 1 Kentucky.
"As long as we play our game and not try to do anything different, I think we will be fine," Grant said.
Grant said he understands why some people doubt Notre Dame.
"This program hasn't done much in March before. Obviously we're going to keep getting that until we do something," he said.