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Notre Dame faces a long history of NCAA missteps

Matt Gamber | Thursday, March 10, 2011

Notre Dame begins play Thursday in New York with a realistic shot at advancing to, and winning, the program’s first-ever Big East tournament title. But the Irish, who are ranked No. 4 nationally, have their eyes on another tournament in which they will likely receive a top-two seed.

Notre Dame will qualify Sunday for its eighth NCAA tournament during coach Mike Brey’s 11-year tenure, and a strong showing at Madison Square Garden this week should guarantee the Irish a No. 2-seed, if not a No. 1, in the NCAAs.

While that high seeding will provide an added amount of pressure to perform in the Big Dance, the Irish are a veteran group that has been to the NCAA tournament before.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, that experience hasn’t been altogether successful in recent years.

After the Irish won six of their final seven games to escape the bubble and earn a No. 6-seed in last year’s tournament, Notre Dame suffered a first-round upset to No. 11 Old Dominion, 51-50, in New Orleans.

“It’s just amazing how fast it can end,” Brey said after the loss. “Once you get into these one-game shots, anything can happen.”

In addition to having that experience from which to learn, there might be two silver linings for this year’s Irish team.

First, senior guard Ben Hansbrough led Notre Dame with 17 points in last year’s upset loss, which shows that the Big East player of the year is tournament-tested and NCAA-ready.

Second, their high seeding will mean the Irish will likely be favored in their first three tournament games — or, in March Madness terms, until the Elite 8, where the Irish have never been under Brey.

While seedings and point spreads can almost always be thrown out the window during the NCAA tournament, it is worth noting that under Brey, Notre Dame has only once beaten a team with a higher seeding than the Irish.

2001: No. 6 seed

Brey, in his first season at Notre Dame, ended an 11-year tournament absence by qualifying for the NCAAs after winning the Big East’s West division title in the regular season — in large part thanks to the efforts of forward Troy Murphy, who won his second straight Big East player of the year award in 2001.

Murphy, a first-team All-American, scored 19 points in Notre Dame’s first-round game to help lead the Irish past No. 11-seed Xavier, 83-71.

No. 3-seeded Mississippi ended Notre Dame’s run in the second round, however, when Rebels guard Jason Harrison’s 3-pointer beat the shot clock and gave Ole Miss the lead, 57-55, with 46 seconds to play. The Irish fell, 59-56, to end Brey’s first season.

2002: No. 8-seed

Notre Dame won back-to-back NCAA tournament openers for the first time in 23 years, beating No. 9 seed Charlotte, 82-63, to advance to a game with No. 1 seed Duke, the defending national champion.

The Irish led their second-round game 71-64 with six minutes to play, but the top-seeded Blue Devils would recover with a 20-6 run that gave them an 84-77 victory.

Then-Duke star Jason Williams made the go-ahead free throws with 1:04 to play and made another pair 30 seconds later to bury an Irish team that received 20 points each from David Graves and Matt Carroll in the near-upset.

Notre Dame trailed 45-39 at the half and 48-39 with about 16 minutes to play, but the Irish surged ahead with a 14-0 run that nearly propelled Brey to a victory over legendary Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, under whom Brey coached in the early 1990s.

2003: No. 5-seed

Notre Dame snuck by No. 12-seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 70-69, in the first round. In that game, the Irish needed every one of guard Chris Thomas’ 27 points to top the Panthers, who were led by current-Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl and were making their first-ever NCAA appearance.

Playing in Indianapolis, the Irish enjoyed a quasi-home court advantage and drilled 13 3 to beat No. 4-seed Illinois, 68-60, and advance to their first Sweet 16 since 1987.

Notre Dame would advance no further, however, as top-seeded Arizona — led by the trio of Luke Walton, Jason Gardner and Channing Frye — rolled by the Irish 88-71. Notre Dame turned the ball over 19 times in a game it trailed 53-40 at the half.

2007: No. 6 seed

Notre Dame knew to look out for No. 11-seed Winthrop, a trendy upset pick, but the Irish still fell in the first round 74-64 to an Eagle program that secured its first NCAA tournament victory.

The Big South champions held off a Notre Dame team that rallied back from a 54-34 deficit to take a 63-62 lead with 2:21 left, as the Eagles finished the game on an 11-2 run of their own to send the Irish packing.

2008: No. 5 seed

A year after suffering a first-round upset, Notre Dame held serve in its first game by beating No. 12-seed George Mason, a popular Cinderella team after its magical run to the Final Four in 2006.

But the Irish run ended two days later, when Washington State trounced Notre Dame, 61-41, in Denver.

The Irish shot only 24.5 percent (13 of 53) from the field, and 17.6 percent from 3 (3 of 17), in a game that saw senior forward Luke Harangody pull in 22 rebounds but score only 10 points on 3-of-17 shooting.