The Big Dance & Notre Dame
Notre Dame men’s basketball and the NCAA Tournament have been a bittersweet experience of pride and woe.
The pride is that only eight other programs have officially made more appearances in the Big Dance than the Fighting Irish, who will be celebrating No. 36 this Selection Sunday since accepting their first bid back in 1953.
Here is the list for most NCAA Tournament appearances, per Wikipedia, entering today:
1. Kentucky — 55, with 17 Final Fours and eight national titles.
2. North Carolina — 47, with 19 Final Fours and five national titles.
3t. UCLA — 45, with 17 Final Fours and 11 national titles.
3t. Kansas — 45, with 14 Final Fours and three national titles.
5t. Louisville — 41, with 10 Final Fours and three national titles.
5t. Duke — 41, with 16 Final Fours and five national titles.
7. Indiana — 39, with eight Final Fours and five national titles.
8. Villanova — 36, with five Final Fours and two national titles.
9. Notre Dame — 35, with one Final Four and zero national titles.
10. Syracuse — 34, with six Final Fours and one national title.
Now, in reality Syracuse is ahead of the Irish with 38 NCAA Tournament appearances, but have “vacancies” in 2005, 2006 , 2011 and 2012 because of infractions imposed retroactively. Villanova had to vacate the 1971 runner-up finish to UCLA when it was discovered that All-American Howard Porter had already signed with an agent prior to the tourney.
Notice something about this top 10? All but Notre Dame are known as “basketball schools,” a demarcation from “football schools” such as the Fighting Irish, a 4-8 season last year, no major bowl win in 23 years and no national title in 28 notwithstanding.
That’s not to say that you can’t on occasion have great seasons in the other sport. The Florida Gators won a couple basketball of national titles in 2006 and 2007, one of them over Ohio State, and Michigan excelled in the late 1980s (1989 national title) and then with the “Fab Five” from 1991-93, although they too have seen their championship game appearances “vacated.”
Michigan State in recent years had excellent football/basketball combos under head coaches Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo, who has been to seven Final Fours and won a national title.
Notre Dame became the first school (and then Florida) to win the national title in football and two months later make the Final Four (1977-78). The Gators pulled off the ultimate double with football and basketball national titles during the 2006-07 school year.
Thus, there is huge pride that Notre Dame hoops has fared as well as it has to make the Big Dance so consistently.
Then there is the woe to balance the pride: Notre Dame is the leader with most NCAA Tournament appearances without a national title.
The Irish are 37-39 overall, including 2-4 in consolation games that used to be played past the first round from the 1950s through 1975.
All the eight other schools ahead of it in appearances have won multiple national titles, with Villanova doing the honors last year. Also, No. 10 Syracuse (with the vacancies) has one as well, while No. 12 UConn has won four since 1999.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey unofficially might possess the title “best head coach in America not to make the Final Four” — especially after taking the last two Fighting Irish teams to the Elite 8, the lone school to pull that double off in 2015 and 2016.
Among Notre Dame coaches, the all-ime NCAA record is:
• John Jordan 8-6
• John Dee 2-6 (0-2 in consolation)
• Digger Phelps 15-16 (1-2 in consolation)
• Mike Brey 12-11
Under three different coaches, Notre Dame has advanced to back-to-back Elite 8 appearanes: Jordan in 1953 and 1954, Phelps in 1978 and 1979, and Brey in 2015 and 2016 — although Brey had to win three games both times to get there whereas Jordan and Phelps had to win twice.
Until 2015, Phelps had been the lone coach in school history to win three consecutive games in the tourney, that coming in 1978 when the Irish advanced to their first and still lone Final Four.
Brey became the first last year to win three in a row twice, and in consecutive years no less.
It was in 1953 that Notre Dame lifted its ban on postseason basketball and accepted a bid to the NCAA Tournament for the first time (football would do the same with bowls in 1969).
Notre Dame’s large number of appearances has been bolstered by the fact it was an independent and the tourney took only 22 to 25 teams from the 1950s until 1974. In those days, only the conference winner could be invited, but Notre Dame as an independent could still receive an at-large berth — as it did in 1965 with a pedestrian 15-11 record under first-year coach Dee.
In 1971, the fifth- and sixth-ranked teams in the final AP poll (USC and South Carolina) could not be invited to the NCAA Tournament because they did not win their conferences. At the same time, 19-7 Notre Dame went as an at-large because of its independent status. That’s what made being an independent so attractive back then (but not after the tournament field expanded).
In 35 previous NCAA Tournament appearances, Notre Dame has posted two consecutive victories only eight times: 1953, 1954, 1958, 1978, 1979, 1987, 2003, 2015 and 2016.
After upsetting No. 1 and defending national champ Indiana in 1954 to advance to the Elite Eight, Notre Dame was the clear-cut favorite to capture the national title. But it suffered the ultimate letdown with a loss to Penn State in the round of eight.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the second round is when many of the most agonizing moments in Notre Dame history occurred:
• Getting upset in overttme by Drake in 1971 to destroy Austin Carr’s national title dreams.
• Michigan in 1974 stunning a 25-2 Irish team led by first-round picks John Shumate, Adrian Dantley and Gary Brokaw.
• North Carolina in 1977 overcoming a 14-point second-half deficit and rallying for a two-point win in the closing seconds.
• BYU’s Danny Ainge in 1981 driving the length of the court and scoring for a 51-50 victory, ending the terrific Kelly Tripucka-Orlando Woolridge-Tracy Jackson era.
Then there was No. 14 seed Arkansas Little Rock’s stunning first-round upset of the No. 3 seed Irish in 1986 … Ole Miss rallying in the second round in 2001 … No. 1 Duke doing the same in 2002 (only to be upset by Indiana in the next round) …Old Dominion’s upset of the Irish in the first round in 2010, No. 10 seed Florida State putting a 71-57 hurting on No. 2 seed Notre Dame in 2011, … the 67-63 loss to Xavier in 2012 while blowing a 10-point second-half lead. Plus, the next game would have been No. 15 seed Lehigh, an upset winner over No. 2-seed Duke.
This year, if Notre Dame can win two games in the tournament, it would be the first time in program history it won a minimum of two three straight years, the school’s own version of a “triple double” with Brey.
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