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Men’s Basketball: Notre Dame makes surprising run to NCAA tournament

Andrew Gastelum | Wednesday, May 16, 2012

When graduate student forward and Irish co-captain Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL in practice on Nov. 25, hopes for the Irish season dwindled. Notre Dame had already lost key pieces to the surprising 2010-2011 team that earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and then the undisputed leader of the young 2011-2012 squad was lost.

But Irish coach Mike Brey said his group was prepared all along to fill the void of Abromaitis. The young and untested Irish went on to post a 22-12 record including a 13-5 mark in Big East play and exceeded all preseason expectations with a group of new contributors.

“We get sharp kids here and we had better players than everyone [thought] when Abro went down,” he said. “It was like Abro and these other guys and rightfully so. Tim had an unbelievable career and played [for] USA Basketball, but we had some other guys here that were pretty good waiting in the wings, ready to play.”

The preseason All-Big East First Team forward missed the first four games of the season due to an NCAA eligibility violation, but the team knew it could rely on Abromaitis when he came back. But Abromaitis played in only two games – losses to No. 21 Missouri and Georgia in the CBE Classic – before the season-ending injury came less than one month into the season.

Without their star, the Irish struggled to keep up with their packed, post-Thanksgiving schedule. Those struggles began on the road Nov. 30 in Spokane, Wash., where No. 19 Gonzaga blew out the Irish, 73-53. Next up came a disappointing 78-71 loss to Maryland at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C., in which the Irish shot an abysmal 36.7 percent from the field.

But things began to gradually change after the Maryland loss, starting with the emergence of junior forward Jack Cooley.

“When I was sick and watching the Maryland game, I got pretty upset with how the season had been going so far,” Cooley said in February. “I was really disappointed in myself and how I had been playing. I made sure that I made changes and that was the point where it really started.”

Cooley immediately made a massive impact, scoring 44 points and grabbing 23 rebounds in Notre Dame’s two-game homestand in wins over Maine and Dartmouth on Dec. 8 and 10, respectively. Notre Dame then responded with a win over Pittsburgh to open Big East play.

Following a lethargic 71-55 loss at Cincinnati on Jan. 4, the Irish went into the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Ky., and won a 67-65 double-overtime thriller behind the heroics of sophomore point guard Eric Atkins against a future Final Four team in the Cardinals.

For every big win came another big loss in the early going, continuing a wave of inconsistency for a young squad going through growing pains.

The Irish continued their erratic play, dropping two in a row to Connecticut and Rutgers, which put the Irish record at 11-8 overall and 3-3 in the Big East.

“I didn’t overreact to that because, coming from where we came from, we were 3-3 and still trying to figure it out but we were still 3-3,” Brey said. “We weren’t 1-4. You’re .500 going into the Syracuse game and I’ve always said 9-9 in our league gets you right in. So 3-3 as we’re still trying to figure it out wasn’t the worst. Then we had the Syracuse opportunity presented that counted more than one win in a lot of ways.”

The Irish welcomed undefeated No. 1 Syracuse to Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 21, and sent the Orange home with a blemish on their record while Irish fans stormed the court in ecstasy. The 67-58 upset victory was the eighth win in program history over a No. 1 team, buoyed by 54.5-percent shooting from the field in the first half as the Irish led by as much as 18. The win sparked a program-record, nine-game Big East winning streak, which the Irish rode all the way to an NCAA tournament berth.

“Winning at Louisville then, on the road, gave us even more confidence to say ‘Maybe we got a shot at getting an NCAA bid.’ And then beating Syracuse was the ultimate confidence-giver for us to get on that run,” Brey said. “It’s a great memory and I have a big wall where I have the team picture. I’m going to put a big picture of the students rushing the court at the end. It’s a great memory.”

The Irish had their first test after the Syracuse win on Jan. 29 in Hartford, Conn., against Jim Calhoun and No. 24 Connecticut. Notre Dame controlled the tempo of the game with its trademark burn offense and exacted revenge against the Huskies, stunning the afternoon crowd with a 50-48 win.

“This group, after where they were in November and December, they really focused,” Brey said. “They get that one and then we go to Connecticut that week, I said ‘Now if you get this one, you’re really showing signs.’ And then they just kept getting them. I think it was a collective understanding and motivation of smart guys.”

The Irish returned home to face a hot No. 15 Marquette team on a seven-game conference winning streak, and easily disposed of the Golden Eagles on national television with a 76-59 blowout win. The Irish sunk 11 3-pointers and benefitted from a career-high 23 points from freshman forward Pat Connaughton.

Cooley led the Irish with four straight double-double performances in their next four wins against West Virginia, DePaul, Rutgers and Villanova, which vaulted the Irish into the top-25 of the national rankings for the first time.
Brey’s team broke the school record in the game following Cooley’s streak, a 71-44 rout of West Virginia on Feb. 22 behind 20 points from sophomore guard Jerian Grant.

But the Irish winning streak came to an abrupt halt at Madison Square Garden in a 61-58 loss to St. John’s. The Irish tried to come back from another large deficit, but couldn’t get past 4-for-31 shooting from beyond the 3-point line. Notre Dame followed this with a 59-41 loss at Georgetown on Feb. 27, before a senior day victory against Providence on March 2 righted the ship before the Big East tournament.

Preceding the conference tournament, Cooley was named to the All-Big East second team and rewarded with the Big East Most Improved Player award. Meanwhile, Grant made the Big East All-Rookie Team.

“Once we got into league play, [Atkins and Grant] played above their experience level and really believed,” Brey said. “I think what’s great for both of those guys is it drives them really to be better and play older after the way it ended for them. I think it’s great. They really had good years but the way it ended kind of keeps a little chip on their shoulder and I love that for them.”

The No. 23 Irish entered the Big East tournament with a double-bye as the No. 3 seed, but barely squeezed by South Florida in their opening game before falling to eventual champion Louisville in the semifinals for the second straight season.

On Selection Sunday, the Irish were paired with Xavier in the precarious seven- vs. 10-seed matchup and suffered another quick exit from the NCAA tournament in a 67-63 loss to the Musketeers (23-13, 10-6 Atlantic-10). With a chance to tie late in the game, Atkins went to the free-throw line, but the tying shot was called off after Grant was called for a lane violation after running in from the 3-point line.

“When you’re up 10 and you can’t finish, that’s really frustrating,” Brey said. “I think we had some really key turnovers. I think our guards actually played as young as they were in that game … I’d like that to be a real learning experience for our group moving forward because it was really disappointing for us because you had the thing in hand.”

Since their exit from the NCAA tournament, the Irish have had a busy offseason. Sophomore guard Alex Dragicevich announced his transfer to Boston College, while two recruits in the Rivals.com Top 150 committed to Notre Dame. Meanwhile, the NCAA denied Abromaitis his request for a sixth year while granting senior forward Scott Martin’s request. Brey said his team will enter the upcoming season with high expectations following the surprising season with his inexperienced team.

“I’m loving [the high expectations]. I’m loving them. I think it’s great,” Brey said. “It’s great territory for us to be in, to have it on us and have to deliver. I think it keeps the coaches sharp and motivated. It keeps the players sharp.”

Contact Andrew Gastelum at [email protected]