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Men’s Basketball: Surprisingly successful season ends with early exit

Douglas Farmer | Friday, May 20, 2011

Losing the all-time winningest class in program history – Tory Jackson and Luke Harangody – was supposed to cripple this year’s Irish. Instead, senior forward Ty Nash claimed that title for himself, running his total to 96 wins after earning 27 more this season.

In fact, the Irish won eight of those before losing their first, marking the best start in Irish coach Mike Brey’s tenure. Notre Dame leapt from unranked to the top 25 after winning the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.

“I learned something about my team that I knew I would down here,” Brey said after defeating Georgia, California and Wisconsin. “You hope to learn while you’re winning, certainly that’s helpful. But for us right now, this team is very confident.”

That confidence was only slightly tempered when the Irish traveled to Louisville to face Kentucky on a neutral court — neutral only by the strictest of definitions as Freedom Hall was filled with tens of thousands of Wildcats fans.

A brilliant first half from senior guard Ben Hansbrough, eventually named Big East Player of the Year, led to a tie at halftime before he, and the rest of the Irish, lost their touch in the second half, losing 72-58.

With the dream of a perfect season dashed, the Irish moved forward and learned from the loss, including one thing in particular, according to freshman guard Eric Atkins.

“I learned we won’t be undefeated,” Atkins said after playing 31 minutes and handing out four assists in the affair.

On the season as a whole, Atkins proved crucial. After the Kentucky defeat, Notre Dame reeled off four more wins, including a 69-55 rout of No. 9 Georgetown, putting the Irish on the verge of the top-10. Three days later, though, on the road against No. 5 Syracuse, Notre Dame fell 70-58, crippled after senior forward Carleton Scott suffered a hamstring injury in what was a close game’s final minutes. As Scott nursed the hamstring back to health, Atkins started Notre Dame’s next five games, playing 39 minutes in crucial Big East victories over No. 8 Connecticut and St. John’s.

Yet the true star in both games, as was the case all season, was Hansbrough. The transfer from Mississippi State finished his second and final season playing for the Irish with 18.4 points per game, shooting 43.5 percent from beyond the arc, including hitting eight of 12 threes on Senior Night in a 93-72 victory over No. 19 Villanova.

“I think the first thing you have to do is expect things of yourself before you can do them,” Hansbrough said following the Senior Night festivities. “If you don’t expect yourself to do them, then you’ll never do them.”

By the end of the season, Hansbrough’s trophy case had doubled and redoubled in size. The guard was named Notre Dame Monogram Club MVP, a John R. Wooden All-American, a Second Team Associated Press All-American and Big East Player of the Year.

Brey was also named Big East Coach of the Year, the third time in the last five seasons he has claimed the prize.

Behind Brey and Hansbrough, the Irish finished the Big East season in second place, one game behind Pittsburgh, even though Notre Dame topped the then-second-ranked Panthers 56-51 Jan 24 in only the second loss in 53 home games for Pittsburgh. In the upset, the Irish resorted to the slow-paced “burn” offense that Brey first instituted late last season, but had not yet been seen this campaign.

“This was the first time we committed to an all-out ‘burn,’ and we beat Pitt doing it two times last year,” Hansbrough said following the win. “This is probably the best win I’ve had … maybe ever.”

The “burn” offense did not appear for another whole contest for the Irish, but made cameos throughout the season when Brey wanted to change pace.

“We are still just as aggressive as we normally are, it just takes us longer to get to it,” senior forward Scott Matin said. “We don’t stop looking to score, we just wait for it, wait for it, let the clock burn down a little bit, then we have our aggressive mindset the rest of the shot clock.”

Martin finally joined the Irish on the hardwood after two seasons on the bench — one due to NCAA transfer regulations and one due to a torn ACL. Before the season, Hansbrough raved about the versatility Martin would bring to the Irish.

“We didn’t have anybody as far as a Scott Martin on our offense last year,” Hansbrough said. “Scott may have the best 10 to 15-foot catch-and-shoot on the squad. He is something of a zone-buster. … People are going to see an offensive side this year that maybe Notre Dame hasn’t seen in awhile.”

Joining Hansbrough, Scott, Nash and Martin in the starting five was fourth-year forward Tim Abromaitis. Abromaitis averaged 15.4 points per game, and hit 42.9 percent of his three-point attempts, as he started all 34 games in the season.

The fivesome, all having played college basketball for at least four years, gave Notre Dame a depth of experience nearly unrivaled across the country.

“You’ve got five guys who are in their fourth or fifth years of college basketball,” Brey said. “We have a nucleus of guys back that have had some success together. We have five guys who are technically seniors who have been around a little bit, and so it’s a great group to try to build with and grow with.”

With that experience, came a late-season push, winning 12 of the final 14 regular season games, and earning a double bye in the Big East tournament.

The double bye resulted in a quarterfinal victory over Cincinnati before falling to Louisville 83-77 in overtime in the Big East Semifinals in Madison Square Garden.

“Really disappointed,” Brey said afterward. “We wanted to try and get Saturday night here. We’ve never been to Saturday night.”

With a 26-6 record, including a 15-5 mark in the Big East, Notre Dame waited with bated breath while the NCAA tournament field was released. A No. 2 seed with opening round games in Chicago left the Irish excited for the possibility of a deep tournament run.

“[I’m] thrilled to jump on the bus to come down the toll road over here,” Brey said before the opening game against No. 15-seed Akron.

But, the run was not to be, as Notre Dame topped the Zips 69-56 but fell to No. 10-seed Florida State 71-57 a mere two days later.

After the early exit, a common plague during Brey’s 11 years at Notre Dame, the Irish coach knew his team was disappointed, though with good reason even beyond the one game.

“We’re all really leveled physically and emotionally because we invested so much,” Brey said. “It’s hard for me to frame the season right now.”

Yet Scott recalled what had been expected of the team before the season, and by how much Notre Dame exceeded those expectations.

“We had a great year,” he said.