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Notre Dame Men’s Basketball: Three Things We Learned in March Madness

Even in defeat, the Irish delivered some top-tier moments

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament Second Round San Diego-Notre Dame vs Texas Tech Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Following our pattern from the football season, this basketball season we’re going to be taking a look at the start of each week at lessons learned from the previous week’s action for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This, of course, involves multiple games and will therefore be more of a look at overall trends than a focus on one game. Let me know what you think/what you noticed in the comments!

NCAA Tournament Results

W vs. Rutgers Scarlet Knights, 89-87
W vs. Alabama Crimson Tide, 78-64
L vs. Texas Tech Red Raiders, 53-59

The Irish put on a better showing than most - fans included - expected, winning an instant classic against Rutgers in their play-in game and then delivering a thoroughly enjoyable thumping of Alabama in the round of 64. The Irish took Texas Tech to the wire in the roud of 32 before the Red Raiders’ defense put the clamps on and closed the game out from the free-throw line. Despite that defeat, this was a performance Irish fans can, and should, be proud of. What did we learn?

This Team Was Not a Fluke

Coming into the tournament, I think I was aligned with most Irish fans in being happy simply to see the Irish make it. Most commentators, polls, and the tournament seeding itself indicated a widespread opinion that the Irish had outperformed the strength of their roster and still had to prove they belonged in the postseason. This was a year where the ACC in general was thought to be a weak conference, and Notre Dame’s strong run through conference play was thus to be discounted against the performance of other teams. See: the seeding of Alabama at #6 in spite of their worse record and worse losses compared to the Irish.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Notre Dame vs Alabama Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Irish proved those doubters wrong and then some in their first two games in the tournament, following a double-overtime thriller in the play-in game with a sound defeat of the aforementioned Crimson Tide. Even in their loss to Texas Tech, the Irish showed the physicality and competitiveness of a bona fide contender. Elsewhere in the brackets, the performance of the Duke Blue Devils, North Carolina Tar Heels and Miami Hurricanes showed the ACC was not as weak as some had supposed, providing validation for the strong performance the Irish had all season long. Notre Dame still has more to work on if they want to make a deeper run, but one thing no one can say about this team is that they didn’t belong.

The Irish Had Some Serious Versatility

One of the most impressive developments we saw from the Irish in the tournament was their ability to adjust their attack on both sides of the ball based on game circumstances. When the Irish - who had struggled against bigger and stronger teams all season - were challenged by the size of Rutgers, they rose to the occasion, with Paul Atkinson absolutely putting forth a Herculean effort down low against the powerful Clifford Omoruyi. Against Alabama, Cormac Ryan provided an only-in-March performance from behind the three-point line, rendering the size of Alabama’s big men moot. Finally, the Irish were able to match the stingy defense of Texas Tech for the entirety of the game, with the Red Raiders only pulling away on free throws in the final minutes.

NCAA Basketball: First Four-Notre Dame at Rutgers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Much was made this year of the lack of star power on the Irish roster. Apart from freshman Blake Wesley - who often struggled to find consistency - the Irish didn’t have a player who was capable of routinely taking over games. While that may have been true, the Irish did show in the tournament that they had competent pieces in nearly all facets of the game, and with the right coaching were able to compete against a wide variety of opponents. That is a sound basis for solid performance in college basketball, and assuming most of these guys come back the Irish may only be a couple pieces away from a major tournament run.

Mike Brey Isn’t Going Anywhere

Coming into this season, Mike Brey appeared to be on the outs. Three consecutive missed NCAA tournaments (four if you include 2020, when there was no NCAA tournament but the Irish were not going to make it anyway) and a seemingly squandered outstanding 2018 recruiting class had fans - yours truly included - losing patience with Brey, wondering if he had lost his touch. All indications were that another year without a postseason would be his last at Notre Dame.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round San Diego Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Having seen the Irish performance in ACC play and in the NCAA tournament, it is my pleasure to state that such reports of Brey’s impending demise were greatly exaggerated. The flexibility of Notre Dame’s playing style, as well as the courage and resolve they showed on the court throughout this season, indicate that Brey is still very much capable of leading his teams in postseason competition, and is unlikely to be headed out of South Bend anytime soon. Which is great, because when the Irish are performing well there is no coach more fun than Brey.

It’s been a fun ride, Irish hoops fans. Looking forward to another year!