Ball is life Irish hope so
Mike Brey wasted no time Sunday night taking a small thing and making it big.
Just minutes after Notre Dame learned it would head to Greensboro, N.C., this weekend to open its NCAA tournament on Friday night against Xavier with powerhouse Duke on the horizon, the Irish head coach found something good hidden within his team's late season swoon.
The NCAA tournament uses the Wilson basketball for its games, the same rock Notre Dame uses for virtually every dribble, every shot and every pass in South Bend. A potential Sunday date with Blue Devils an hour from Duke would feel like a road game, but Notre Dame would at least have the home balls.
"I think there's psychological advantage to that, there's no question about it," Brey said. "If the ball's a factor in their mind, it's a factor."
Notre Dame went 16-1 at the Purcell Pavilion this year, upsetting No. 1 Syracuse, blowing out Marquette and handing West Virginia its worst loss under Bob Huggins. When the Irish have shot well, it's the Wilson ball that's gone through the hoop.
So as Notre Dame hunts for bright spots after its Big East tournament letdown against Louisville (the Big East uses Nike balls at Madison Square Garden) and closing meekly with road losses to St. John's and Georgetown, the Irish hope their preferred ball might help.
"That's huge," said Scott Martin. "It's the ball you play with all summer and use for every game here. I think it's the best ball that there is out there. Maybe it isn't that big a deal but I think psychologically at least for us we love that we can use it."
Of course the NCAA tournament ball is the same one Notre Dame used last year against Florida State when it shot 19-of-62 from the floor (30.6 percent) in the 71-57 loss at the United Center. It was Notre Dame's second-worst shooting performance all season.
What makes the Wilson the must-have basketball for Notre Dame? For Martin and Jack Cooley, it's a similar ball to what they used in high school. For Alex Dragicevich it's just the familiarity. With Eric Atkins, the Wilson has a softer touch.
"I think it's more of a shooter's ball, but I think any one of my teammates here would say that," Atkins said. "We're just more used to it. To get back to the Wilson ball is good for us."
Connaughton Looks, Learns
After talking to reporters Sunday about a tournament he's never played in, Pat Connaughton stopped to speak with the media again Tuesday. And nobody had any questions for the freshman.
"I'm still Pat Connaughton," the freshman joked before ducking into the locker room.
The Connaughton Notre Dame needs against Xavier isn't the one who's gone 2-of-19 from three-point range his last five games. The off-kilter in the freshman's game extended to Selection Sunday too when Notre Dame's name popped up in the South Region.
"I had no idea what to expect it to be like, what we were supposed to do, like if our name was called if we were supposed to cheer or what was going on," he said. "So I tried to go with the flow and follow the older guys."
Against Xavier and beyond, Notre Dame needs Connaughton to follow his own lead and rediscover the player who's not only capable from three-point range, but a threat on the glass with the team's highest vertical jump.
"I think knowing that there's other ways I can help the team, trying to focus on defense, trying to focus on rebounding," he said. "Rebounding has been one of the things that I've been able to do my entire life, just attacking the ball, jumping, try to fly around, make things disruptive, get a few steals, a few deflections. Like things that even might not show up in the box score … but they're the hustle plays that every team needs in order to win a game."
Getting Back To Greensboro
If the Greensboro Coliseum is unfamiliar to Notre Dame's basketball program, it's common ground for its head coach. Mike Brey remembers his first year as a Duke assistant when the Blue Devils won the ACC tournament over North Carolina with regular trips to face Wake Forest at the Demon Deacons' former off-campus site.
The Tar Heels will also be back at the complex this weekend as the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, which could create a rivalry fan dynamic Sunday assuming both advance.
For Brey, the 23,500 capacity building simply means looking back at a lot of wins, starting with that ACC title in 1988, which was a springboard for a Final Four run.
"That was my first touch," Brey said. "A lot of good memories down there."