As my fellow OFD staffers frequently remind me, I'm old. My love affair with Irish hoops started long before the notion of a blog, so I thought now may be an interesting time to look around and take a look back. CW has already posted the definitive analysis of this year's ND team and their tournament experience, but what if you had jumped in a time machine (preferably a hot tub) from my senior year in the spring of 1995 to now?
Twenty-two year old me would have to be asking questions like:
- "What are you guys talking about ‘March disappointments?' Are we still not getting bids? Snubbed again?"
- "Really? Wow! Four straight bids? Did they expand the field to 128 or something?"
- "WTF do you mean 68 teams?"
- "They call the ACC, what? Who's Purcell? He must be the coach that got four straight bids, because I'm sure MacLeod didn't get us those."
The '94-'95 team was 15-12 with a lone highlight of beating IU at home in a crowd that filled the ACC (the building, not the conference) with more red than blue, gold, and green combined. Led by freshman Pat Garrity, they were an interesting little team, but the consensus was that the big bad BigEast was going to feast on these poor Midwestern rubes for a long time. That was a bit of a strange assumption considering that the Irish played future BigEast opponents: DePaul, Louisville, BC and Marquette all that year (in addition to Indiana, Missouri, Dayton, Xavier, Duke, UCLA, and Kentucky). It felt a bit like ND was limping in to the BigEast and twice annual meetings with the likes of Syracuse, UConn, Georgetown, etc. were going to be more pain than parity.
Fast forward 18 years, and the Irish now stand at the door of the ACC (the conference, not the building). Once again, detractors are questioning ND's opportunity to be competitive on Tobacco Road. History says, don't bet against the Irish. I expect our guys to be competitive from day 1. Brey has Duke roots. Nothing is going to surprise the head coach in ACC play, and we just might sneak up on some people.
Just as ND is a team poised to make a transition, the NCAA Tournament also transitions from the fun of the first weekend to the serious business of the Sweet 16 this weekend. Let's use this break to take a look at opponents from ND's past and future and see how they've fared this postseason.
Former Big East Foes
Cincinnati - Tough draw for Mick Cronin's squad. Creighton's McDermott put up 27 & 11 in a hard fought game that sent the Bearcat's packing in the first round*. As one of the few teams floating over to the new "America 12" or "We used to be the Big East, but few of us are actually East" conference, the Bearcat fans have to be wondering why they couldn't find a better chair as the music stopped.
Villanova - In a game of old vs. new for Irish fans, the Wildcats fought off a 20 point deficit to get back in the game with North Carolina, but Jay Wright's squad continued the trend of Big East one & done's. Villanova is poised to do well in the new Big East. They seem like a much better fit in the new league.
Georgetown - Mike Brey should have probably sent JT3 a thank you note as Florida Gulf Coast's run to the Sweet 16 started with this stunning 15-over-2 upset and knocked ND's egg-laying vs. ISU out of a lot of the national coverage. Once again, the Hoyas were stopped short of a Sweet 16 appearance (their last being the '06-'07 Final Four season). The Hoyas certainly look to be top dogs in the new Big East, but they'll likely get a big challenge from...
Marquette - Vander Blue's last second drive and finish helped Buzz Williams' squad escape a very game Davidson team and set up an intense 2nd round* tilt with Butler. In one of the most entertaining games of the tournament so far, the
Warriors Golden Eagles won to make their 3rd consecutive Sweet 16 appearance. While Williams isn't my cup of tea, Milwaukee has a love affair with their coach right now, and there is some panic out there as his name gets tossed around in the discussion of UCLA's open job. If he stays (and I think he will), Buzz will have Marquette in a very competitive position in the new Big East. I'm hoping Jack Swarbrick sees fit to put the Warriors Golden Eagles on ND's non-conference schedule on a regular basis.
UConn - Oh wait, they're not in the post season. Such a shame. Couldn't have happened to a nicer program.
Louisville - The Foulin' Pitinos are the overall #1, and they've certainly lived up to the billing so far, cruising in both of their first 2 games. The Cardinals seem to bring out the best in ND, and despite a number of very close (and particularly long) games in our shared Big East history, their tournament success (both BET and NCAA) is what separates Louisville from ND and explains their fan base's comically insane reaction when ND plays them tough. If Pitino's men can survive Oregon on Friday, Sunday's match up vs. Duke will be the marquee match-up of the Elite Eight. I'm not thrilled to see the "94 feet of fouling" philosophy make its way into the ACC, but at least we'll get a year off next season.
Syracuse - Boeheim's 2-3 zone and the Orange's overwhelming athleticism sent Montana packing quickly, and in another highly entertaining (albeit, quite ugly) game, Syracuse advanced past Cal and into the Sweet 16. I'm fascinated to see how the 2-3 does against the Hoosiers this Thursday. Unless they see some NBA defections, specifically from Carter-Williams, Syracuse stands poised to challenge the traditional ACC powers from day 1. It'll be really interesting to see if some of the better shooting ACC teams give the Orange more trouble than the rock-throwing that has been the trend in the Big East.
Pitt - Be honest, it is a little fun to see Pitt suffer, isn't it? Pitt getting drubbed out of the first round* by the Shockers wasn't all that shocking, but it was entertaining. Pitt was one of those teams that wanted to turn BigEast hoops into nightly WWF matches. It is going to be fascinating to see how Jamie Dixon's style of basketball plays in the ACC. While you'll see a lot of physical post play in the ACC, the back court play is usually far less hands-on than what we saw in the Big East. It'll be interesting to see if the Panther's can adjust.
In with the New
UNC - While Roy Williams was able to notch his 700th career victory vs. Villanova, the school where he won the first 418 of those games sent him packing in the second round*. It was a tough year in Chapel Hill, and the Tar Heel fan base now waits with bated breath on the draft decisions of McAdoo, Bullock, and Harriston. There's hope that if 2 of the 3 stay, Williams' squad can find their swagger back next year.
NC State - Much to the chagrin of the fans in Raleigh, State ran in to the Khalif Wyatt buzz saw in the first round*. His 31 powered Temple to a 4 point victory over the under-achieving Wolfpack. Losing Howell and Wood will certainly hurt Mark Gottfried's squad, but if CJ Leslie and Lorenzo Brown both play out their eligibility in Raleigh, they'll be a very tough opponent next year.
Duke - They're Duke. They're a small, private, academically rigorous school with a proud tradition of winning and a bit arcane/archaic home venue. They have a loyal fan base that is wildly outnumbered by a broad hater base. People, in general, like to see these guys lose. (Sound familiar?) Coach K put together a really nice year, despite losing star forward Ryan Kelly for a stretch. Decisive wins vs Albany and Creighton have the Dookies in the Sweet 16 for the 4th time in 5 years, erasing any hangover of last year's early exit. With Sparty and the winner of IU/Oregon standing between them and yet another Final Four appearance, the Durham faithful are fired up and ready to go. With Plumlee, Curry, and Kelly all graduating, you can count on Coach K reloading more than rebuilding next season. (PS: If any ND ticket hookups are listening, I'd appreciate some love for the first ND game in Cameron)
Miami - The upstart Hurricanes were the surprise team of the league, winning both the regular season and ACC tournament championships. Coach of the year, Jim Larranaga's squad is experienced, with 3 of their 4 top scorers in their final year of eligibility. I don't expect the game with Marquette on Thursday to be a work of basketball art, but it should be fairly entertaining as the 2 and 3 seeds in the East Region slug it out. Next year in Miami could be rough, particularly if Larkin decides to enter the draft. However, I think Larranaga solid coach with improving institutional support, and he will have the ‘Canes near the top of the league consistently over the next few years.
While ND was sent home early this year, Irish Basketball is now ready to focus on this next chapter in their history. Here's to hoping our move to the ACC represents the same giant step forward that our time in the Big East provided.
*Anyone referring to a couple of play-in games as a "round" of the tournament is crazy.