Mazurek: Notre Dame needs to look ahead, not back, to become elite
Marek Mazurek | Saturday, March 18, 2017
BUFFALO, N.Y. — Let’s make 2015 the year one of the new era of Notre Dame basketball.
That 2015 Irish squad, in just its second year in the ACC, won the conference tournament and took maybe the best college basketball team of all time to the full 40 minutes in the Elite Eight.
Since then, the basketball gods have smiled on head coach Mike Brey’s program. Another Elite Eight run followed in 2016, where two upsets meant the Irish were the higher seed until the national quarterfinals. This year, a second-place finish in the ACC and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament set up a potential run to San Jose, California, and a third straight Elite Eight.
But West Virginia had other plans. Much is made of Brey’s recent success, and deservedly so, but Bob Huggins also knows exactly what he’s doing, and the Irish couldn’t figure out the Mountaineers’ press defense consistently enough to escape Buffalo, New York, with a win.
Coming into Saturday’s game, this Notre Dame team had the chance to be the first in program history to win two games in three straight tournaments — not even Digger Phelps’ teams of the late ’70s could do it.
That’s because it’s harder than you might think. Three straight Sweet 16s requires three separate classes of solid talent, a really good coach and a little luck along the way. Without the kind of one-and-done talent that the nation’s top programs attract, it isn’t easy to mold three such teams in consecutive years.
Yet, the fact Notre Dame was on the verge of accomplishing that speaks volumes to how far the Irish have come in the past 20 years. Before this recent string of tournament magic, the Irish were an easy out in the first round of the Big Dance. They lost as a No. 7 seed in 2012 and 2013 and exited in the round of 32 in 2011 as a No. 2 seed. And that’s not to mention the 2014 season, when the Irish didn’t even make the field of 68.
If I were writing this column in 2013, 2014 or 2015, I’d write about how staving off an upset against Princeton and battling a strong Mountaineers team for 40 minutes was a step in the right direction.
But that column doesn’t ring true in 2017. No matter the opponent, an exit in the round of 32 is not the result Notre Dame expected. Heck, just ask Brey.
“We’ve been used to getting to the second weekend — I think that’s why our guys are so crushed,” Brey said. “They really expected to go. I love that that’s part of the expectations within our program.”
But at this stage of the game, at the end of year three, simply saying the season didn’t end the way the Irish expected doesn’t do anyone any good.
After a disappointing campaign, the best teams in the country look to next year. So should the Irish.
In fact, they don’t have to look much further than West Virginia. In 2015, Bob Huggins’ team advanced to the Sweet 16. Last year, the Mountaineers earned a No. 3 seed but fell in the first round to No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin.
Saturday afternoon, West Virginia rebounded and is among the nation’s top-16 schools again.
So what does Notre Dame have to look forward to?
For starters, juniors Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson will likely return, and with them, the offensive foundation for next year’s squad. Sophomore Rex Pflueger and freshman T.J. Gibbs — who both played valuable minutes throughout the season — will get bigger roles, with Pflueger likely continuing to start. Both junior Martinas Geben and senior Austin Torres return to the front court as well, and current high school senior D.J. Harvey could make a splash at wing.
Colson and Farrell will be the latest in a long line of senior duos, following in the footsteps of Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste and now V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia.
Is that a team capable of making the Sweet 16? The Elite Eight? I wouldn’t count them out. Especially if Colson plays like he did tonight.
For the first time in a long time, Notre Dame faces a fork in the road — the same fork that every major basketball school faced at one point in its history: making the jump from good to great on a consistent basis. There are a lot of flash-in-the-pan teams come March — just ask Florida, who won it all two years in a row but then didn’t make the tournament the next two.
In the 2017-18 season, the Irish have the chance to prove they’re here to stay.
So it’s ironic that as the West Virginia band played “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” it is Notre Dame that now must find the place where it belongs.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.