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Despite missing an NCAA bid, Irish still seek NIT championship

Andrew Soukup | Friday, March 19, 2004

Nobody cares about the NIT.Right?No, certainly not Irish coach Mike Brey. He only had his staff tape sheets of paper above each player’s locker with Notre Dame’s previous trips to the NIT, all of which didn’t include a championship trophy. His message is clear – the Irish want to hang a banner that marks a championship, something Notre Dame hasn’t done since Brey’s rookie campaign.”I like the NIT,” Brey grinned while throwing out one-liners in the interview room after the Irish beat Purdue 71-59 in the tournament’s first round.So the Irish coach likes the tournament to determine who is No. 66 in the country – but there’s no way the players can, right? They’re the ones who got snubbed, who don’t even have the dream of being a Cinderella because they’re not even dancing.But you couldn’t tell that from the way Torrian Jones flapped his towel on the bench after the Irish finished the first half shooting 7-for-10 from the field. Nor from the way Chris Thomas pumped his hands in the air when he hit 3-pointer after 3-pointer. Or the way Tom Timmermans grinned after he hit a back-breaking trey late in the second half.”Everybody right now,” Thomas said, “has to play with a chip on your shoulder just to play another day.”Chips on shoulders? Survival? You usually don’t hear that in post-NIT game interviews. No, those comments are reserved for NCAA Tournament talk.But it’s understandable that Timmermans and Jones, who could potentially be playing their last game, don’t want their basketball careers to end. But what about bench players like Rick Cornett, who were marginalized for much of the season in mere supporting roles?Well, all Cornett did was turn in his second career-high scoring performance in as many days, with a 16-point performance. So impressive has Cornett been for the Irish that Brey, who ordered his players to become more perimeter-oriented when Torin Francis got hurt, now tells his charges to again rotate the ball through the low post.”I don’t want to put the balls away,” Brey said. “I want him to keep blossoming.”OK, OK. So the Irish apparently don’t want their season to end. But the fans surely must. All that talk about renewing the Notre Dame-Purdue rivalry, and the game didn’t even sell out. And the student section only needed two sections of upper-level bleachers because the rest were watching Bengal Bouts or punishing their livers. Apparently, NIT stands for Not In Tournament, and so the fans decided to be Not In Attendance.So why were local fans in their seats unusually early? So why, when the Irish pulled away in the first half, did the crowd roar at deafening levels? Why was it fitting to see Thomas’ elementary-school-age brother trying to get the crowd to stand up when the Irish made another run in the second half? And why did Brey call Wednesday’s game the best home atmosphere the Irish played in this year?Say what you want about how the NIT is a joke tournament – an afterthought grouping of games that deserves to be shown only on ESPN7.But if you say it, make sure that the head coach who wants his team to hang a banner doesn’t hear you. Make sure the seniors who don’t want their season to end don’t hear you. Make sure that next year’s key players who continue to improve don’t hear you. Make sure the fans who aren’t tired of cheering don’t hear you.”Wherever they tell us to go,” Brey said, “we’ll be there ready to go.”Yeah, that’s right. Nobody cares about the NIT.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at [email protected]