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Irish fail to advance to NCAAs for first time under Brey

Matt Lozar | Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The season started earlier than usual, but it also ended earlier than the Irish have grown accustomed to.Starting practice on Sept. 4 because of a fall break trip to Barbados, coach Mike Brey could work with his team for seven weeks before the three-game tour. From that initial meeting, he began instilling a season-long theme – resiliency. Losing starters Matt Carroll and Dan Miller and their combined 33 points per game to graduation left the Irish with six of their eight main players – including three starters – never averaging more than 20 minutes and five points per contest in a previous season.The only main offensive contributors returning from the Sweet 16 team were guard Chris Thomas and sophomore forward Torin Francis. Thomas not only returned to the team for his junior season after flirting with the NBA Draft in the offseason, but also ended speculation later in the season by announcing he will return for his senior year.That lack of experience on the Irish roster was present from the start.It became apparent when the Irish lost three straight games and started 2-3 – their first time being under .500 with Brey at the helm. The loss that haunted the Irish all season was their buzzer-beater stunner to Central Michigan when senior co-captains Torrian Jones and Tom Timmermans watched from the bench. “It’s the fourth game of the season, and our guys are devastated,” Brey said. “Their heads are down, and we have to play 30 more games here. They have to get their heads up.” After getting back on track by winning four straight non-conference games and opening the Big East season 2-0, the difficult, yet at the same time opportunistic, conference schedule began.The Irish lost six of their next eight games – Pittsburgh twice, Syracuse, Kentucky and at Rutgers and Boston College. Four of those teams made the NCAA Tournament while the Scarlet Knights only lost at home twice.But something funny happened when the Irish lost to Pittsburgh for the second time and were at a crossroads in their season at 10-9 overall and 4-5 in the Big East – Francis suffered a back injury in that loss, and the Irish started playing better.Converting to a “five-out” system, the Irish defeated eventual national champion Connecticut, Seton Hall and Syracuse in an eight-day span that propelled the Irish to the NCAA Tournament bubble.”Everybody’s really picking it up,” Chris Thomas said. “You can’t replace a double-double in Torin, but we’re picking up the intensity and playing with a tremendous amount of confidence.”The lack of a consistent post presence began to catch up with the Irish as they squandered opportunities – namely a home loss to Providence and a Big East Tournament quarterfinal loss to an Emeka Okafor-less Connecticut team – and saw their bubble burst on Selection Sunday.”I don’t know if we’re going to be an annual NCAA Tournament program,” Brey said. “There’s a handful that do that. Just about everybody rotates through the NIT every now and then.” Viewing the NIT as an opportunity to play more basketball and gain momentum for next season, the Irish defeated Purdue, in the schools’ first meeting since 1966, and Saint Louis before losing to Oregon at the Joyce Center in the quarterfinals of the NIT – one game away from returning to Madison Square Garden. No NCAA Tournament, only winning 19 games and not advancing to the Final Four of the NIT caused many to view the Irish as a disappointment in 2003-04.But Brey looked at the past season filled with injuries and inexperience in a different light. “I don’t know if I’ve ever felt better about a group giving us everything we asked on a daily basis,” Brey said.