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March 23, 2013

Tim Prister's Full Court Press

Irish Illustrated Editors Column

DAYTON, Ohio – Skip the typical end-of-the-season niceties. No one would buy them anyway.

No one wants to hear about how seven of the top eight men in the rotation return next year as the Irish enter an exciting new challenge in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

The West Regional’s No. 2 seed – Ohio State – which will square off against Iowa State Sunday in Dayton Arena to advance to the Sweet 16, also has only one senior in its top-eight rotation, and the Buckeyes didn’t look anything like the Irish Friday night.

Notre Dame exits the Big East in ignominious fashion with its 76-58 loss to the Cyclones. The Irish were schooled in every way imaginable.

They couldn’t defend the three because they couldn’t defend the penetration because they couldn’t cut the baseline because they couldn’t control the basketball because they couldn’t finish around the basket because they couldn’t get good shots…

Not every one of those failings led to another, but Iowa State’s strength snowballed into Notre Dame shortcomings, and it was another early exit from the tournament.

For those keeping score – and we know that’s true because Mike Brey’s dissenters have never been louder  – that’s three first-game exits in the last four years and two NCAA tournament victories in the last 10 seasons.

Close losses are one thing. He’s had a few of those like the one-point loss to Old Dominion and the four-point loss to Xavier. But of Brey’s nine NCAA tournament losses at Notre Dame, five have been by double digits, including a 17-point loss to Arizona in 2003, a 20-point loss to Washington State in 2008, a 14-point loss to Florida State in 2011, and now this dismantling that mercifully will be recorded as a mere 18-point loss to the Cyclones when, in fact, it was much closer to the 27-point lead that Iowa State had on three occasions in the second half.

“Our history of our program in this thing has not been good. I’m aware of that,” said Brey, who won as many NCAA tournament games in his third year with the Irish as he has in the last 10 combined.

“But we strive to do better at it and I still feel we have some pretty good momentum with good players coming back and good young players.”

We should have seen this coming, much like Alabama over Notre Dame on Jan. 7.

The disparity between the two teams was blatantly obvious. Iowa State made Notre Dame look unskilled, and that was just on Notre Dame’s offensive end where the Cyclones were supposed to be vulnerable since they were second-to-last in the Big 12 in scoring defense.

Notre Dame’s big men did the damage that was expected, at least on the offensive end. Jack Cooley, Tom Knight, Garrick Sherman and Zach Auguste scored 38 of Notre Dame’s 58 points. But Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton and Cam Biedscheid looked like one of Notre Dame’s pre-season exhibition opponents playing against an upper echelon Big East team. Those four combined for 6-of-25 shooting from the field.

Korie Lucious shut down any notions by Atkins of penetrating the lane. Grant committed five of Note Dame’s 17 turnovers, which is a familiar theme against quality opponents. Biedscheid looked unprepared physically and emotionally to play in such a high-level game.

The Irish had three turnovers two-and-a-half minutes into the game, and 14 in the first half. It’s a wonder Iowa State didn’t lead by more than 12 points at halftime. They had 13 more shots than the Irish – and 11 fewer turnovers.

“I really thought we were playing our best basketball coming into this game,” said Cooley, who was involved in a brief heated exchange with Brey during a second-half timeout as the frustration bubbled over.

“We never win games when we turn the ball over that much. We got thrown out of our game after the beginning, when we were in it for a while. About the 14-minute mark, something happened.”

Actually, when Connaughton nailed his only basket of the night – he shot just twice after connecting on 15-of-24 three-pointers in the Big East tournament – the Irish had a 16-12 lead with 11:56 left in the first half.

But Iowa State’s big men – 6-foot-6 Melvin Ejim and 6-foot-7 Georges Niang – ate up Notre Dame’s bigs, combining for 36 points by driving to the basket, taking dump passes that led directly to easy buckets, or following up missed shots. Had it not been for several missed slam dunks, the halftime lead would have been closer to 20.

“When it goes bad, it goes bad,” said Connaughton, who will immediately go from basketball to baseball season upon his return to the campus Saturday. “We need to learn how to stop the bleeding. That’s what the great teams do.

“Basketball is a game of runs, and when teams start to make runs on us multiple times in a game, we need to figure out a way to dig down deeper and stop the bleeding. That’s something we did not do tonight.”

Ultimately, that responsibility falls on the shoulders of the Irish coaching staff – in particular, Brey – who knows that the pattern has become all too familiar in the post-season.

The Irish can defeat anybody in the Big East during the regular season. They’ve proven that time and again. But when it comes to the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame is a double-digit underdog in reality if not on the ledger.

“This is the one thing that still drives me on a daily basis,” Brey said. “(We need) to get there and manage it better and (be) better prepared.”

Asked if he thought he could get the Irish to that next level in post-season play, Brey hesitated for a couple of seconds and said: “I think we can. Ask me in a month. Let me digest it.”

Not exactly inspiring words to live by as the Irish make the move to the ACC, where the competition perhaps isn’t quite as stringent on a night-in, night-out basis. But Notre Dame may have to reshape itself in a league that stresses running the floor quite a bit more than the pound-it-in, pound-it-out approach that has infiltrated the Big East.

It’s no wonder the Irish ultimately turned to a four-headed monster down below. That’s how you win in the Big East. It’s a little different in the ACC. In fact, Iowa State – a member of the Big 12 – flashed a bit of an ACC preview for the Irish.

“What are we going to be in this new league and can we earn a bid again out of this new ACC?” Brey said. “That’s the first matter of business. What will take my mind off the NCAA tournament is to try to figure out who we are in the ACC. That’s probably a good thing.”

The ACC sent just four of 12 league members to the NCAA tournament this year, and now the conference will expand with the arrival of Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh in 2013-14. The Big East sent eight teams to the NCAA tournament this year.

Do the math. Things just got more difficult for the Irish, although the re-formed Big East will lose some bids.

“We had this earning a bid out of the Big East down to a science,” Brey said. “We haven’t advanced, and that’s a whole other issue. But how do we earn a bid out of the ACC? What’s our non-league scheduling philosophy given who our repeat opponents are? (ACC bottom-dwellers Georgia Tech and Boston College are two of the four. The other two will be named within a month.)

“We’ve always been able to play our way in and get a bid through the strength of the Big East. The ACC has not had that power so you may not have as many shots at good wins as you had in the Big East. So what do you do with your non-league? Those are things we’ve been talking about as a staff.”

More important than the inner-workings and the politics of landing a bid is the need for the Irish to man up come tournament time. Brey is rightfully pleased with the return of every key player on the roster other than Cooley.

And speaking of Cooley, plaudits are indeed necessary for the player who maximized his skill as well as anyone who has ever put on a Notre Dame basketball uniform. For a guy who couldn’t play more than about a dozen minutes a game because of stamina issues a couple of years ago, Cooley transformed himself into a first-team all-Big East selection. Kudos to Cooley.

But as Cooley walks out the door, the Irish must find the inner beast that seems to curl up in a corner come NCAA tournament time.

“There were times when we showed it and you would think tonight would be when we showed it the most, but that’s not what we did,” Connaughton said. “We’ve got to take that personally.

“We need to reflect to the younger kids that it’s fun to get the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament, but it’s worse to get the opportunity and get your butts kicked.”

Add another thorough butt kicking to the mixed bag that is the Mike Brey legacy.

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