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Let the madness begin

Andrew Soukup | Tuesday, March 16, 2004

The bubble officially popped for Notre Dame just after 6:30 Sunday night, but Mike Brey had his players well-prepared for the probability that they wouldn’t be playing in the NCAA Tournament.At a practice earlier that afternoon, Brey and the Irish focused on continuing their season as one of 40 participants in the National Invitation Tournament. So even though the Irish gathered at Brey’s home to watch the NCAA Tournament Selection Show with a glimmer of hope, they weren’t terribly surprised by their fate.”Over the last couple days, a lot of weird things happened that gave us some hope,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “But I think, for the most part, we were 90 percent ready for the NIT.”Instead of making a fourth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame will host in-state rival Purdue Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the NIT. The two teams, who met almost annually in the 1940s and 50s, haven’t played since 1966.”We need to play more rivalries like that. We need to play teams in state,” said Indianapolis native Chris Thomas. “It just makes it more to play for. It attracts more attention.”If Notre Dame wins Wednesday, the Irish will go on the road next week to play the winner of the Iowa-Saint Louis game because the Joyce Center is hosting four women’s NCAA tournament games.It was tough to tell what kept the Irish out of the NCAA Tournament. The Irish won seven of their last ten games, including wins against tourney-bound Connecticut, Syracuse and Seton Hall, and had a schedule rated as the 27th most difficult in the nation. However, the 17-12 Irish lost six games at home, including early-season setbacks against Central Michigan and Indiana. Brey believed that had the Irish won one of its two games against Pittsburgh or its one game against Kentucky, Notre Dame’s postseason might have been different.Brey emphatically said that he didn’t consider a trip to the NIT a step back for a program that went 11 years without an NCAA bid. Notre Dame was one of just nine schools to win a first-round game the last three years, and he cautioned that the nature of college basketball means NIT trips could occur.”I don’t know if we’re going to be an annual NCAA Tournament program,” the Irish coach said. “There’s a handful that do that. Just about everybody rotates through the NIT every now and then.”After all, Syracuse played in the NIT in 2002 and then won the 2003 national title.The Irish insisted that there is no shame in playing in the NIT, saying they want to advance one step farther than the Notre Dame squad that lost in the 2000 NIT final”We’re very proud to be a part of the NIT,” Brey said, adding, “I don’t see an NIT championship banner hanging up there, we have a history with that tournament but haven’t won it.”That’s something for our guys to shoot for.”