Before Notre Dame took the court against Xavier on Friday night, a lot of heavy lifting had been done for them. Lehigh had knocked out number two seed Duke, leaving the Mountain Hawks, Colorado, a very sketchy Baylor squad and the tenth-seeded Xavier Musketeers between the Irish and the Elite Eight. All they had to do was win some games.
And they didn't. With a ten-point lead and an offense slicing and dicing Chris Mack's Musketeers (Twenty field goals on eighteen assists at one point before things unraveled), Mike Brey put his team into the Burn offense far too soon, and then Tu Holloway led Xavier back. It's offensive to offenses to label the Burn as one, considering it just consists of guys standing around while Eric Atkins dribbles, then everyone scrambling to get a shot off. (Shane Ryan wrote about this over at Grantland following the Georgetown loss.) Xavier had no answer to the Irish pick and roll, so Brey changed the question. Yes, Xavier cranked up the pressure on defense and put extra effort into denying Cooley the ball on the block, but it's hard to make a defense work when you're standing around.
The end of the game was marred by a horrible call, as officials in the first round of the tournament tried to one up each other's epic derpitude as the weekend approached. Atkins had raced down the floor with the Irish down two, clock dwindling quickly to zero, and drew a foul with 2.8 seconds left. Shooting a one-and-one, Atkins connected on the first...only to have the officials whistle Jerian Grant on a lane violation. By the letter of the law, the call was the right one: Grant had crossed the three-point line prior to the shot hitting the rim. It was the same call that cost UNC-Asheville the day before, although they were whistled upon recovering a missed free throw. Grant's move had zero effect on the play and did not need to be called. You can make the "Well, it's in the rule book" argument, at which point officials need to start whistling traveling and in-bounds violations on every other possession.
This stings more than the last few March disappointments, which are starting to pile up. Last year, Florida State was a nightmare matchup, a team that validated its Sweet-Sixteen run by claiming an ACC tournament title and three seed this year. Two years ago, Old Dominion was actually a better team than the Irish on paper, despite being a lower seed. This year? Notre Dame was playing a half-decent Xavier team that had muddled their way through Atlantic Ten play, and they had a ten-point lead in the second half. They got nice sparks from Tom Knight and Alex Dragicevich off the bench, some clutch late threes from Grant and a tremendous performance from Jack Cooley, and it was all for naught. Yes, there was some terrible officiating at the end, but it shouldn't have come to that.
Xavier gets to play Lehigh now for the opportunity to play in the Sweet Sixteen, not Notre Dame. They get to keep dancing, and Notre Dame goes home early. Again.
We'll do a proper Irish wake for what was a really fun season, but right now I don't want to look at the bright side. There are lessons to be learned from this game if Notre Dame is to take the next step as a program, and I can only hope we're not having this same conversation next March on this same opening weekend.