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A few thoughts on the 2015 Fighting Irish basketball team

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Notre Dame just finished one of the finest seasons in the program's history. Let's discuss it.

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1)   Two years and one week ago I wrote a rambling piece called "A few thoughts on the 2013 Fighting Irish basketball team." Said team had just been on the receiving end of a first round curb stomp from Iowa State and things were dark. (I recommend reading it to see just how dark.) It's a decent enough post but it elicited some tremendous comments and serves as a really interesting State of the Program document for March 2013. The wisest thing in there comes from our own Alstein when I asked how the hell Notre Dame was supposed to get over their March woes:

By having Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, and VJ Beachem. That's how. Guys that are good enough to just say "eff all this" and not really give a rip about any of Notre Dame's past performances.

2)   That is mostly a correct answer, only it turns out you had two seniors who also didn't give a rip about the past performances. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton need to have their names in the rafters of Purcell Pavilion sooner rather than later, as they embodied every great quality you could want in a basketball player. Grant was the chaotic creator who somehow almost always remained in control, with a flair for the dramatic and vision as a passer most NBA players would fail to match. Connaughton was the steady ice to Grant's fire. (Except when he had to be the fire to Grant's ice, if that makes any sense at all. I swear it does to me.) He played power forward all year at 6'4", shot 40% from three, had five blocks in a tournament game and did this all after literally giving up millions of dollars that were available if he had just walked away from hoops to play baseball. Both of these guys could have left after last season and it would have been totally understandable. They stayed, and now they are legend.

3)   It seems silly now to consider that just three and a half weeks ago we were worried whether this team would have any banners with which to remember them. Then there was Greensboro. Then Pittsburgh. Then two nights in Cleveland where they went to heights the Irish basketball program hasn't seen in decades. The banners will look glorious, but anyone who watched this team play will remember them for as long as there's basketball.

4)   If Kentucky or Michigan State win the national title, they will still have fewer wins against Final Four teams than Notre Dame.

5)   Saturday night was a stomach punch to end all stomach punches. It was a stomach punch with a switchblade and a twist and then you get patched up but hey guess what you're also poisoned and this is going to hurt for a long, long time. Of all the scenarios I had simulated in my head going into Kentucky, "Losing a heartbreaker and feeling like we 100% should have won" was not one of them. Blowout loss? Sure. Loss where we trailed the whole game and cut it to a few points late just to make it interesting? Yep. Win where we shot 80% from three, Kentucky couldn't find the basket and it felt like we stole one? You bet. But not "Forcing Kentucky to play a perfect game down the stretch while missing corner threes that have gone down all year." That hurt.

6)   But after finally forcing myself to watch the end of Louisville/Michigan State, I felt a little better. I remembered the pit in my stomach on my couch when Northeastern had the ball late down two, a three away from first-round infamy. I remember how I stood in the Consol Energy Center on the same side Butler was shooting at in the second half, legs weak, heart exploding, imagining how I would feel driving back to New York the next day knowing that the Irish had fallen short of the Sweet Sixteen again. Notre Dame played three tight, single-elimination tournament games. They went 2-1. If Kameron Woods get that tip to go down or Northeastern gets a three off, we're not here to feel sick about the Kentucky loss. We got to watch 38 games of some of the best basketball anyone will ever see played. That's not something to mourn, that's something to celebrate.

7)   I didn't want to complain about the seeding from the committee on Selection Sunday because it felt wrong to complain before Notre Dame actually, you know, won a game or two in the tournament. But they got screwed. And Arizona got screwed. But if you want to play in the NCAA tournament, you have to realize Duke is always going to get preferential treatment and seeding, even if you went 2-1 against them over the course of the season and they failed to win a league title of any sort.

8)   I did have a few issues with strategy in the closing seconds of the Kentucky loss. I recognize that the team had great success with Grant going iso to close games earlier in the year, but that was going against teams that didn't sport one of the best defensive efficiencies ever. Against that team, you need to run your stuff that had been carving them up all night. I am not that upset about the failure to get the 2-for-1 at the end of the game, simply because all college teams are generally awful at that, mainly due to lack of reps. (Consider, you have four end of quarter situations in the NBA over 82 games over decade careers, versus two halves and thirty-some games for college players. The opportunities just aren't there.) I also wouldn't have wasted the last timeout on defense and would have considered fouling, but those are more 50/50 calls. Going iso was the wrong decision, but I don't blame Mike Brey for dancing with who brung him. Jerian Grant earned that trust all year.

9) If the Kentucky game hurts you too much to think about, just focus on that Wichita State evisceration. You had a Shockers team led by players who had been to a Final Four and gone 34-1 in consecutive seasons and by the middle of the second half they knew they didn't have a prayer in the Sweet f'n Sixteen. Their soul was ripped out by perfect team basketball resulting in elite offensive production and some ridiculously tough defense. It was as ideal a fifteen minutes of basketball as you will ever see.

10) Notre Dame is going to be really good next year. They won't be as good as they were this year because you can't replace Grant and Connaughton, but they're going to be damn good. A backcourt of junior Demetrius Jackson and junior Steve Vasturia will be among the best in the nation. Zach Auguste is already one of the best screen-and-roll finishers in the country and will have another offseason to expand his game. Bonzie Colson and V.J. Beachem got to go to war, and while Beachem didn't play well the last couple games, he's a top-100 talent who was involved in some of the best runs of the season. He'll be fine. And Austin Torres couldn't get minutes late in the season, but remember he was the post anchor for the entire stretch run and overtime against Michigan State, who is in the Final Four partially due to their impressive frontcourt play. Martinas Geben has size but needs some more time getting molded, and now we have some time. Perhaps Austin Burgett's switch will flip. Perhaps there will be a graduate transfer who wants to play in the best offense in the country while working on a Notre Dame degree. Things will be good.

11) The main reason I think the 2016 team and program overall are in such good shape is because Brey is now a made man. The Kentucky loss will haunt him for eternity, but he knows his stuff works at the highest level now. There will be no more "It's a good regular season system, but...". Brey can recruit smart players who are good dudes and they can run his offense and pick their spots on defense and compete for a national title. It will always be tough for Notre Dame to recruit hoops for the reasons we always list, but if Brey can get two of three guys a year, keep the classes balanced and occasionally stumble into an elite prospect who falls in love with the program (or grew up in Mishawaka, whatever), he's going to be fine. Everyone loves Mike Brey because Mike Brey deserves to have everybody love him. The outpouring of respect he received from everyone in the sport following the death of his mother wasn't an accident. He's beloved for a reason and we're very lucky to have him and Muffet McGraw roaming the sidelines in South Bend.

12) Do you realize how fortunate we are to get to watch this offense a few dozen times a year? In a game where teams can't shoot, can't pass and some coaches refuse to allow their players even an ounce of creativity, the Notre Dame offense is a living testament to the beauty of basketball and the power of teamwork. This is what has always annoyed me most about the awful, awful Notre Dame fans who really only care about football and parachute in to bitch about the basketball team a couple times a season. For those of us who love this game, this program, this team, it's an absolute joy to see the sport played in this way and for those who watch a half-dozen games  a year - if that - to want to trade that away so maybe they can wear some blue and gold gear at the office in March drives me insane. Just go read about the latest football offers to high school juniors and leave us to enjoy our basketball in peace.

13) What do you think your favorite moment from this season will be? Butler? Wichita? The run against North Carolina in Greensboro? Duke in Greensboro? The comeback at NC State? The run against Duke at home? Winning at Louisville? At Chapel Hill? The highlight reel from this season would take an entire afternoon to really process. What a damn team.

14) No one will be able to replace Grant and Connaughton, but credit to Mike Brey for bringing in a pair of recruits who will give it their best effort. Rex Pflueger from Mater Dei in California is the only ESPN 100 recruit committed to a school in Indiana, and I think the kid may have a future in the sport:

And the other signee, Matt Ryan, was named New York Mr. Basketball. Two 6'5" guys with length, the ability to get the ball into the lane and shoot it from deep...yeah, that might work out. Oh, and throw in 6'8" four-star Elijah Burns, who has a "strong body, high basketball I.Q., and increasingly versatile skill set." Things are going to be okay.

15) Don't let the Kentucky loss define this team for you. Single elimination tournaments are not gospel and they are not fair and they are not how you should judge a team that went 32-6 and piled up marquee wins for four months. We get to watch a program with good kids who play beautiful basketball and win more than they lose. There are worse ways to go through your sports life.

16) Anyway, Hugh, play the f****** music already. "Because brother, when you were good, you were the best we had." Plenty of NSFW language in this video, but well worth it, and I'll be damned if there has ever been a video I've wanted to embed more that had the code disabled. To Mike Brey and the 2015 Irish.