Klonsinski: There’s something in the air
Zach Klonsinski | Saturday, March 21, 2015
After needing an outstanding final defensive stand as time expired to “escape” — in the words of Irish head coach Mike Brey — CONSOL Energy Center with a victory over Northeastern on Thursday, you could forgive Notre Dame fans for thinking it was an ugly win.
An hour later though, it sure looked a lot better. Just ask Baylor and Iowa State.
At dinnertime, the triumph looked beautiful to teams like VCU and SMU.
By the time Thursday’s action wrapped up in the wee hours of Friday morning, LSU, Purdue, Wofford and Harvard would have considered the Irish win a van Gogh masterpiece.
With five one-point games Thursday and a number of others that went right down to the wire, 16 teams would gladly have traded places with the Irish.
After all, Notre Dame has another game tonight.
Given the program’s history in the NCAA tournament, it would be easy to assume the Irish would be concerned about the heartbeat-raiser they found themselves in with a 14 seed.
Having been in the locker room talking with players and staff these last two days, any worry about Notre Dame squeaking past the Huskies is purely an outsider’s concern.
“We got the win, and that was satisfying in and of itself,” senior guard/forward Pat Connaughton said Friday. “To get by that Northeastern win was just as big a win as any we’ve had this season.”
Connaughton later referred to Saturday night’s upcoming game against sixth-seeded Butler as “the biggest game of the year.”
Spoken like a true captain.
When the brackets are announced, fans look at the 3-14 matchups and oftentimes assume anything less than a blowout victory spells disaster for the higher seed.
Yet this is the NCAA Tournament: UCLA’s controversial, one-point win over SMU looks the same on the bracket as Kentucky’s trouncing of Hampton. In both cases, the teams start from scratch in their games today and Sunday.
This year’s Notre Dame squad understands that as well as anyone because it doesn’t have to look far for a perfectly good example: “Last time I checked, the Miami game, first game of the ACC tournament, we had a very similar game, and then we got on a heck of a run,” Brey said Friday outside the team’s locker room.
The Irish had to dig deep to pull out a 70-63 win over the Hurricanes in that game. Notre Dame, of course, then went on to a 74-64 victory over Duke in the semifinals before pulling away from North Carolina, 90-82, to claim the program’s first conference tournament title.
Disregard the fact the Irish never had a tournament championship, or even a tournament finals appearance, to draw experience from before; they’ve got one now.
“Never,” Brey said when asked if he’s ever had as great a teaching tool as the ACC tournament. “And I’m using the hell out of it.”
Drawing on last weekend’s experience, the common refrain from the team since the final whistle of the Northeastern game has been “the first one is always the hardest.” While it’s about as cliché as it gets, a couple observations have dawned on me in the past two days to signal the phrase rings true.
First was how loose the locker room was Friday afternoon, despite media members packing the place like sardines in a can. When a reporter called him out over how a baseball player could ever wear a hat backwards, Connaughton, without missing a beat, pointed to the tiny clover on the tag by the adjustment strap.
“Just had to make sure you guys could all see this little guy and that it’s an Irish hat,” he quipped with a smile.
Freshmen guard Matt Farrell and forward Martinas Geben did their best impression of sophomore guard Steve Vasturia’s interview style, with Farrell breaking up his responses into three word phrases separated by exaggerated “uhh’s.” The two jokesters then caught freshman guard Matt Gregory zoning out across the room and brought him back to the present with the toss of an empty Powerade bottle, drawing a laugh from many onlookers.
Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson recounted stories about defending against his older brothers on the sidewalk — them trying to dribble around him without leaving the concrete and him doing anything and everything to prevent them from accomplishing their goal.
Even senior guard Jerian Grant, usually very stoic around the media, had a slight smile resting on his face.
Junior forward Zach Auguste said the team was actually able to enjoy March Madness like the average fan and recharge following Thursday’s victory.
“It allowed us to take a deep breath, sit back, relax and watch a couple games and kind of recollect our thoughts and get prepared mentally and physically for the game on Saturday,” he said.
My second observation? This team is confident.
“They just believe it’s their time to do it,” Brey said. “After what they did in Greensboro, there’s kind of a confidence about this group and a feel that they can make a run in this thing. There’s a great mental toughness about this group.”
When the players say “the first is always the hardest,” they aren’t just talking about the first game compared to the second.
Sure, there’s a burning desire, as Auguste said, to reach the Sweet 16, something the program has only accomplished twice since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. But there’s more than that: this team is not just ready to go at least that far — they expect it.
Not that any players will admit to believing in a deep run; they’ll say all the right things about being focused only on the next game, on winning the Pittsburgh tournament, a phrase which has been liberally thrown around as well.
Yet if the atmosphere in the locker room Friday suggests anything, the team that takes the court tonight will resemble the team that showed up against Duke and North Carolina last weekend, like the team that locked down Northeastern on Thursday when the game was on the line late. I don’t mean this will translate to a blow-out tonight at 9:40 p.m. at CONSOL Energy Center or in any other tournament game the Irish may play; the competition will be too good for that.
What it will mean, though, is when the winning moment presents itself tonight against Butler, this Notre Dame team is more than ready to seize it.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.