When the Irish gather in Club Namoli atop Purcell Pavilion for the annual NCAA tournament selection show, the Notre Dame name will flash across the big screens a little after 6 in a bracket bound for Chicago. As it does, it also will carry the school’s highest tournament seed in 30 years.
Regardless of whether Notre Dame (26-6) has indeed done enough to earn its first No. 1 seed since 1979, the Irish will enjoy their strongest seed during the 11-year tenure of coach Mike Brey.
Smiles and satisfaction should race through the room. But …
Long after the final horn early Saturday morning at the Big East Championship semifinals overtime loss to Louisville, Notre Dame wasn’t ready to turn attention toward the NCAA tournament, where it gets a second chance to accomplish at least one of its remaining team goals. Failing to play for a conference tournament championship for the first time in school history was too painful to feel good about anything on the horizon.
"For us, it’s kind of hard to talk about moving forward because we invested so much," Brey said. "It’s going to take us a day to kind of refresh ourselves and get going."
Moods more somber than after any loss in recent memory were expected to eventually improve early Saturday afternoon as the Irish charter headed home. But letting go of lingering thoughts about something the Irish had so controlled – it wasn’t just there for the taking, it was theirs - may be tricky.
Notre Dame led Louisville by 16 points in the first half, by 14 at intermission and by eight with less than seven minutes remaining before one historic step would be taken by a veteran team that embraces the expectations of executing in the most difficult of game situations.
When they needed to pass one more test against the Cardinals, the Irish flunked. They couldn’t take care of the ball, couldn’t make a shot, couldn’t keep the other guys out of their lane or off the backboard and couldn’t make a winning play. They played flustered, and they paid a big price with a loss that cut deep.
"It will take them a little more time to get their legs under them emotionally because they’re so disappointed," Brey said.
Dealing with defeat is a rather easy proposition during the regular season. Doesn’t matter if it’s in Milwaukee or Morgantown, losses are quickly brushed aside for more challenges immediately ahead. But what happens when a team closes in on one massive goal it first set focus on last summer, having driven itself hard through each regular-season practice and each game to chase that common cause only to break down with the finish line right in sight?
Brey and the Irish have experienced so much together, but there’s no blueprint on how to pick up the pieces and make sure no frustration festers at a time that may define this season.
"We kind of wanted it so bad," Brey said.
Perhaps no player felt that pain more than senior captain Ben Hansbrough, the league player of the year who picked the wrong time to not play like one. It had been just over two months – Jan. 10 at Marquette to be exact – since Hansbrough had looked so out of sorts. He pressed much of the night to make a play. He missed two critical free throws with the Irish up two in the second half. He missed opens 3s. Still, even saddled with all the struggles, Hansbrough had a shot to send the Irish into the championship game at the end of regulation. But the ball simply would not fall. Had it, he would have been hailed. If it does, everything still is all right with the Irish. Still could be.
"This will make us hungrier going into the tournament," Hansbrough vowed. "I don’t think this group will allow it to linger because we’ll use this hurt as the driving factor."
The answer as to what direction – together or apart – the Irish go will be quick. A season that has been so special now hinges on one simple motto - 40 more minutes. Win and there are 40 more. Lose, and it’s all over.
Just as coming close wasn’t good enough last week, neither is another NCAA tournament cameo. All that matters now is navigating through to the second weekend as that age and experience and drive that was supposed to deliver a date in the league championship game surfaces at the right time.
One final chance remains for the Irish to make this a season that people remember for the right reason.
Staff writer Tom Noie: