Few people could have seen this coming. I certainly didn’t.
Though I expected the Notre Dame men’s basketball team to make the NCAA Tournament this season, I certainly wasn’t expecting a repeat of last year’s trip to the Elite Eight. With Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton gone to the NBA, I just didn’t see the Irish getting past the first weekend.
Heck, I had Stephen F. Austin beating them on my bracket — not that I wanted it to happen.
But now, Mike Brey’s team is not only one win away from the Final Four for a second straight year, but it’s also the last college basketball team from Indiana still in the hunt for a national title. Who would have predicted that?
Most didn’t even think the Irish men would be the final basketball team left from South Bend — but the top-seeded Notre Dame women were stunned by Stanford on Friday.
Many in this basketball-mad state likely expected Indiana, Purdue or Butler’s men to outlast Notre Dame, too — but the Bulldogs were simply outmanned, the Boilermakers had no guard play and the Hoosiers couldn’t guard anybody (101 points? Are you serious?).
Meanwhile, the plucky Fighting Irish have staved off elimination in back-to-back rounds, gutting out win after win. And so here we are.
One has to wonder if Brey will finally start to get the love he’s earned over the years. His peers respect him — Brey was the Big East’s Coach of the Year three times at a time when the conference was clearly the nation’s best — but Fighting Irish fans have never really given him his due.
At a school where football is all most fans care about, the 16th-year head coach has made 11 NCAA appearances, consistently keeping Notre Dame competitive despite having a severe demographic disadvantage in recruiting.
Campus aside, South Bend is not the most attractive destination to begin with, and the academic restrictions generally mean that out of the top 100 recruits in the nation each year, Brey can probably only talk to roughly 25.
Academics aside, men’s basketball presents other unique recruiting challenges. Notre Dame’s student body is less than 4 percent African-American, meaning there are just over 300 black students among the more than 8,000 undergraduates. It’s extremely difficult for Brey to bring a top basketball recruit from an inner-city public school to that campus and tell that player with a straight face, “Hey, you’ll fit right in here.”
For both demographic and academic reasons, Brey isn’t landing the caliber of recruit whose aim is to attend college for a year or two and then bounce for a shot at the NBA. Current point guard Demetrius Jackson, a junior who is likely to leave after this season (he’s projected as a first-round draft pick), is the first top-tier recruit Brey has landed in a long time — and he had a built-advantage there, since Jackson was a South Bend native who played high school ball at Mishawaka Marian.
The typical Brey recruit has been ranked toward the bottom of the top 100 nationally, if in it at all — but the plus side of that is that the typical Brey recruit stays for four years. That gives those players a chance to grow as individuals and as a unit.
It paid dividends for Notre Dame last season — and it’s doing so again this year. A team with less star power than most has again successfully navigated America’s best conference and put itself one victory away from the school’s first Final Four since 1978.
For even the most optimistic of Fighting Irish fans, this is a pleasant surprise. But considering the types of miracles Brey has been working during his tenure, perhaps it shouldn’t be all that surprising after all.
Ryan O’Leary is the sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at [email protected].