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Men’s Basketball

Carson: Tournament success proves Notre Dame is in a ‘golden age’

| Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Notre Dame players huddle before their 88-74 loss to North Carolina on Sunday night in Philadelphia.Michael Yu | The Observer
Notre Dame players huddle before their 88-74 loss to North Carolina on Sunday night in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA — What in the world happened to Notre Dame’s men’s basketball program?

The formula was pretty simple for the Irish: Have a good regular season, earn a solid seed, then get to March and forget how to win.

You could look at 2007 and 2010, where the Irish failed to get out of the first round as a No. 6 seed, falling to Winthrop and Old Dominion.

Maybe the 2011 team, which earned a No. 2 seed, was the most painful, when the Irish got manhandled by 10th-seeded Florida State in the second round.

Or, my personal favorite, that 2012 first-round loss to No. 10-seeded Xavier. You know, the one where a Jerian Grant lane violation cost the Irish a late chance to tie, with that No. 15-seeded Lehigh team waiting in the wings.

Time and time again, though, it was the same story: Opportunity knocked in March for Notre Dame, but nobody answered the door.

But after two successive trips to the Elite Eight, that’s changed. Drastically.

“[I’m] just really proud of the work we’ve been able to do in the past couple years and kind of set the standard for going forward,” Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson said.

Jackson’s right — this is a new standard for Irish basketball.

Assuming he grades out at the NBA combine like many expect him to, we’ve likely seen the last of Jackson’s career in the blue and gold. But alongside senior forward Zach Auguste, the Mishawaka native has dramatically altered the course of the program he somewhat timidly entered two and a half years ago as a freshman.

Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson drives during Notre Dame’s 88-74 loss to North Carolina on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.Michael Yu | The Observer
Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson drives during Notre Dame’s 88-74 loss to North Carolina on Sunday at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

If it was his last performance for the Irish, it was one hell of a 26-point show.

I’m so proud of him,” junior forward V.J. Beachem said. “I’ve known him for a long time and I expected nothing less from him, the effort he gives us and the leadership he gives us.”

Headlined over the last two seasons by Grant, Pat Connaughton, Jackson and Auguste, it’s easy to see why Irish head coach Mike Brey attributed his team’s recent turnaround in March to talent, rather than anything the staff did.

And to a certain point, he’s right. Grant and Connaughton are playing in the NBA, Jackson may well be a lottery pick and Auguste will have every opportunity to play his trade professionally — Brey said Auguste is “going to make a lot of money playing this game.”

But to simply dismiss it as “talent” and nothing else would be a little disingenuous.

While big things were expected of Jackson when he walked on campus, they weren’t always there with Auguste. The Marlborough, Massachusetts, native played just over 10 minutes per game his freshman year and steadily improved through each of his four years. When asked what Auguste meant to this team, Beachem had a simple response: “Everything.”

“He embodies it in every way a young man should grow, on and off the court,” Beachem said. “He’s been great for us all four years and I’ve known him for so long, just to see this growth in him has just been great.”

If I ask my dad about Notre Dame hoops, he’ll talk energetically about Adrian Dantley, Kelly Tripucka and, of course as a Cavaliers fan too, Austin Carr. Those 1970s teams coached by Digger Phelps represented a golden era of Irish basketball, capped by a Final Four trip in 1978 and an Elite Eight one in 1979.

With the Irish returning no fewer than six of their eight tournament rotation players — sophomore guard Matt Farrell called the future “very bright” — a simple thought dawned on me:

George Keogan led Notre Dame through a golden age in the 1920s and 1930s, and Phelps had his in the 1970s.

And now, we’re in Notre Dame’s third golden age. The “Mike Brey era,” if you will.

In a few decades, I’ll be telling my kids stories about Grant’s shot from the shamrock, Connaughton’s block against Butler, Auguste’s dunks with authority and, of course, Jackson’s heroic final 20 seconds Friday night against Wisconsin.

With two Elite Eights in two years, Notre Dame men’s basketball is back on the map.

And I’ve got a feeling Digger won’t be able to tease Brey about that Final Four appearance for much longer.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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