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March 13, 2006The setup was all wrong, they said.
Last year Notre Dame limped into college basketball's other postseason tournament, losers in four of its previous five games and fresh off a perceived NCAA snub. Forty-eight hours after being told the Irish weren't fit to dance even though most analysts touted Notre Dame's footwork, the team fell on its face at home against Holy Cross in front of 2,517.
Notre Dame played like a team that didn't want to be there. That's because the Irish probably didn't. This time, with no postseason slight on their minds, Notre Dame (15-13) likes where it stands heading into Wednesday's match-up with Vanderbilt (17-12) at the Joyce Center.
"We didn't even watch the real selection show yesterday," said Chris Quinn. "We knew what we were going to get. We knew we were going to be in the NIT."
For the first time in Notre Dame's three straight years of NIT play, the Irish don't mind playing second fiddle to the 65-team, must-see event that defines the season for most programs. After starting 1-8 in the Big East, Notre Dame's oft-stated goal was simply getting to the conference tournament in New York.
That might sound like shooting low, but it was the reality Notre Dame saddled itself with after losing 10 conference games by a combined 35 points. Coach Mike Brey said the pressures of qualifying for Madison Square Garden the first time could help Notre Dame get back there for the NIT's Final Four later this month.
"All of [the other teams] knew they were going to their league tournament no matter how bad [the season] was," Brey said. "We have lived under a different gun for six weeks. I give our kids a lot of credit for fighting and doing it and I hope we're older and tougher going into this thing because of it."
Never playing with a realistic hope of an NCAA Tournament bid after January might help too, even if that's the ultimate silver lining scenario. In the NIT, where simply wanting to be there can be enough to advance (see Notre Dame last year), the Irish won't bring angst to the court as in the past two seasons. This year it's Michigan, Maryland, Cincinnati and Florida State that must sell itself that preparing for the NIT is worth the effort.
If Notre Dame beats Vanderbilt, the Irish would likely travel to Michigan on March 20.
"In their situation I could see them coming out a little more lackadaisical," said Colin Falls of teams entering the NIT off an NCAA snub. "I think we're more OK with [the NIT] this year. We didn't feel like we were robbed like we kind of did last year. This year we've been focused on getting to New York again."
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