There are always two sides to a story, and the tale of Notre Dame basketball this season followed that script perfectly.
Following a 15-17 campaign in 2013-2014, the men’s squad came into the season talking about simply making the tournament. On the other hand, the Irish women were hungry for an NCAA title in 2015 after a 37-1 record last season that ended with a disappointing loss to Connecticut in the championship game.
“We look and we say, let’s fight back into the mix of an NCAA bid,” Irish men’s head coach Mike Brey told reporters Oct. 15 at the team’s Meet the Media Day. “We’ve come from [being picked to finish in the bottom of the conference] many times to snatch a bid, so it’s not unfamiliar territory for our program.”
Except the male Irish didn’t “snatch” a bid at all: they earned every bit of it. The team secured the first automatic bid in program history after winning the ACC tournament.
Not that they needed the automatic bid to make the field. Going into the conference tourney ranked No. 12 and with a regular season record of 26-5 — 14-4 in ACC play — the team was a lock to make the tournament regardless of what happened last weekend thanks to one of the best regular seasons in school history.
One of the criticisms of Brey and Notre Dame has been the program’s inability to string victories together and advance beyond the first rounds of the NCAA tournament. Usually team members have to answer the annual questions about how the squad will be able to move past it. However, over the past month of the season that sort of question started to fade.
“The sky is the limit,” senior guard/forward and team captain Pat Connaughton told reporters Sunday after the selection show. “One thing that this team does is set lofty goals and expectations for each other.”
“Pat always talks about rewriting Notre Dame history, and we’ve done that a little bit this year, but we’re not done,” senior guard Jerian Grant said. “We still have another tournament that we want to go and win it all.”
In the preseason the Irish were picked seventh in the ACC, a finish which might have earned them a spot in the tournament. The team was a national unknown.
Fast forward five months and the Irish are anything but after their victory Saturday night in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“I think one of the things that motivates us more is when you look at the regular season we had, and the third best team in the ACC going out of the ACC tournament, no one picked us to win that thing. No one gave us a shot to win,” Connaughton said.
“ … We had the belief in ourselves, and at the end of the day, there wasn’t a lot of respect for this team, so we wanted to grab that for ourselves and move forward.”
Now that the Irish are firmly on the national radar, don’t expect the team to be phased by the larger stages: they understand what got them here, Connaughton said.
“The last tournament we played in, we won it, so going into this one, we’re just trying to take — what Coach Brey mentioned to us that it’s many tournaments,” the captain said. “Right now we’re focused on the Pittsburgh tournament, and focused on Northeastern, more specifically, and if we can win that one, we will move on. You need to take it one game at a time and play the way we have been playing over the last week.”
Unlike the men’s team, not much has changed for the women from the beginning of the season to the end. After winning the ACC and reaching the 2014 NCAA championship game only to be soundly defeated by Connecticut, the Irish started this season ranked first in the ACC preseason polls and No. 3 in the country.
Now, the Notre Dame women (31-2, 15-1 ACC) are ranked No. 2 in the nation with an ACC title and a top seed in the NCAA tourney.
The Irish suffered only two real dips in dominance over the course of the season: first, a 76-58 loss to then-No. 3 Connecticut on Dec. 6, dropping them to No. 5 in the national rankings. Notre Dame climbed back up to No. 4 until a Jan. 8 loss to unranked ACC opponent Miami pushed them down to No. 7.
Since then, the women are undefeated and were able to secure an ACC championship with wins over Miami, Duke and Florida State.
Sophomore guard Lindsay Allen said the ACC title sweep by Notre Dame’s men and women was important for both teams.
“It means so much for the basketball programs,” Allen said. “We’re really close with some of the guys on the team, and we’ve been texting back and forth with them. We were watching [the ACC championship game] together and getting really excited for them. Second year in the ACC, it’s really exciting for Notre Dame to win the ACC championships for both programs.”
Although this is the second consecutive ACC championship for the women and their 20th NCAA tournament berth in a row, the accomplishment is still a thrill, head coach Muffet McGraw said.
“It’s always exciting, and I always worry immediately about the next game,” McGraw said. “It’s just such a fun celebration of the season. We had a nice week to relax and enjoy it, and now, we’re ready to get back to work.”
The consistent success of Notre Dame did not come without some struggles, McGraw said. For example, this year’s team is much younger, with veterans like Kayla McBride and Natalie Achonwa graduating in 2014, and lack of experience was an early obstacle.
“I think this team has really had to battle more,” McGraw said. “We’ve had to overcome some things. I think we’ve been challenged a lot more. We’re probably overachieving a little bit more than some of the other teams because we didn’t have quite the experience, but they certainly earned where they are.”
The freshmen have been key to much of the team’s dominance this season, especially freshman forward Brianna Turner, who won a wide range of awards throughout the season, culminating in ACC Freshman of the Year.
McGraw said she is hopeful the freshmen will handle the spotlight and pressure of the NCAA tournament well with the help of more experienced players like junior guard and espnW’s National Player of the Year Jewell Loyd.
“We’re excited to see how they do,” McGraw said. “They’re playing with a lot of confidence right now, so I think that’s the important thing for us. Certainly, the veterans are the ones that have to lead us. … I think the best thing about Bri is just how steady she is. She is so much the same. She has great composure, great voice. I don’t really worry about her.”
Sophomore forward Taya Reimer got experience playing in the tournament as a freshman last year, and said she’ll be able to take what she learned into the tourney this year.
“I got so much experience out of the tournament last year, and this time around, [it’s different] just kind of knowing what to expect and how tournament games go,” Reimer said. “It’s just such a different feel from the regular season. So just knowing how to prepare for that and have that extra focus is definitely something that I learned.”
The men begin their quest for an NCAA championship Thursday at 12:15 p.m. against Northeastern at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, while the women’s NCAA tournament journey starts Friday with a game against Montana at Purcell Pavilion at 7:30 p.m.