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Men’s Basketball

Veteran leadership, new faces lead Irish back to NCAA Tournament

| Friday, May 13, 2022

In a resurgent year for Notre Dame basketball, behind a veteran-laden group and some fresh faces that injected much-needed energy into the program, the Irish returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years.

When they gathered at head coach Mike Brey’s house over a year ago for Selection Sunday, they knew they would not be hearing their name called that night. This year, despite a slow start and some ups and downs throughout the season, the team returned to Brey’s house this time knowing they were headed to March Madness for the first time since 2017. 

“I‘m extremely proud of this group because Selection Sunday a year ago, they were at my house and we watched the show, and that was kind of a miserable day, and it was a 365-day countdown to get back to be part of Selection Sunday. And that they‘ve done it is pretty cool,” Brey said after the team fell in the ACC quarterfinals to Virginia Tech.

The 2018 recruiting class, widely considered one of Brey’s best, largely fell short of expectations, having not made a tournament heading into their senior season. That class consisted of four top-100 recruits in the ESPN 100: Nate Laszewski, Dane Goodwin, Robby Carmody, and Prentiss Hubb. 

However, it all came together for that group this year. Carmody has battled injuries throughout his tenure with the Irish, but the other three seniors stepped up to lead the team this year. They were helped by Brey’s judicious use of the transfer portal — he added Cormac Ryan from Stanford and Trey Wertz from Santa Clara before last season and added graduate transfer Paul Atkinson, Jr. from Yale prior to this year. 

Atkinson wasn’t the only addition that helped kickstart the Irish, however. Freshman Blake Wesley made an immediate impact upon his arrival on campus. Wesley became the first player to graduate from a South Bend public school to sign with the Irish since 1985. Wesley, a four-star recruit and the No. 82 player nationally, was highly touted but few expected him to make the impact he did so quickly. He scored 21 points on 7-10 shooting in his first collegiate game, a 68-52 win over Cal State Northridge to open the season. 

However, after that hot start for Wesley and the team, they quickly fell into a rut. They traveled to Las Vegas for the Maui Invitational and dropped the first game of the tournament 62-59 to Saint Mary’s despite holding a late lead. After dominating division-two foe Chaminade in their second game, the Irish advanced to the fifth-place game of the tournament, where they subsequently blew a double-digit second-half lead and fell to Texas A&M 73-67. The Irish returned home disappointed after heading to Las Vegas with high expectations. 

It didn’t get any easier after the invitational, though. The Irish immediately hit the road again, heading to Illinois for the Big 10/ACC Challenge, falling by 10 points, and dropped their first conference game in a blowout road loss to a Boston College team who would finish 13th in the ACC. 

The season would turn quickly for the Irish, however. Two teams heading in opposite directions met in South Bend Dec. 11: Kentucky entered the contest 7-1 and ranked No. 10 in the country while the Irish were still searching for a spark early in the season. 

It was Notre Dame, however, who came out on top, and it was Wesley’s introduction to the national stage. He hit the game-winning jumper with 12 seconds left, and after Goodwin threw down a dunk at the buzzer to seal the game, the student section rushed the court. 

“We certainly needed a night like this,” Brey said after the win. “You can’t draw it up any better.”

While the Irish did drop their next contest to Indiana in the Crossroads Classic, the team would win 11 of the following 12 games, including 8 ACC victories. It was one of the non-conference games amidst this streak, however, that proved most impactful for Brey and his players. The team traveled to Washington, D.C. to take on Howard in the MLK Classic. Notre Dame prevailed 71-68, but it wasn’t the result on the court that the team would remember most.

“It’s an honor to be on an [historically Black college and university] campus, a prestigious university in Howard, and to be in that setting,” Brey said prior to the trip. “I think it’s a great educational opportunity for our players. I think it’s an unbelievable message for our University.”

The winning streak set up a showdown with No. 9 Duke which would determine first place in the conference and was one of the most anticipated games in South Bend in years. However, the game didn’t live up to expectations. Notre Dame scored just 43 points and was left chasing the Blue Devils for the remainder of the year. It was the team’s only loss at home and they finished 14-1 in South Bend on the year. 

The defeat didn’t derail Notre Dame’s prospects for first place in the conference, as the Irish won five consecutive conference games to stay in the chase, but the Blue Devils continued their strong run of play to stay just ahead. Notre Dame finished second in the ACC despite late-season road losses to Wake Forest and Florida State. 

The Irish entered the ACC tournament in Brooklyn with a double-bye to the quarterfinals and high expectations, but their hopes were almost immediately dashed by Virginia Tech. They went down by double digits early in the first half, and couldn’t recover.

The following Sunday, the Selection Committee elected to send Notre Dame to Dayton, Ohio, for a First Four matchup with Rutgers.

“They deserve it, man. They‘ve been just an amazing group to coach. They‘ve chased it together since last year,” Brey said. 

In arguably one of the best games of the tournament, the Irish prevailed in a double-overtime thriller to advance to the Round of 64. Atkinson had a career game, scoring 26 points including the game-winner with less than two seconds remaining.

“Coach Brey said it more times than I count, it’s a battle-tested group,” Atkinson said after the win. “We‘ve been through a lot of tough battles, had a couple of overtime games during the regular season. We stuck it out a couple games, sometimes it didn‘t go our way but we know how to win games.”

Notre Dame then had to travel across the country to face sixth-seeded Alabama less than 48 hours after dispatching Rutgers. They were able to use the momentum of the previous game to their advantage, however, riding a strong second half to a 78-64 upset victory.

“People were saying double overtime, long flight, legs are going to be tired. We were gunning and we were ready to go, and it just feels special,” Ryan, who led the team with 29 points in the win, said afterward. 

The Irish advanced to the round of 32 to face third-seeded Texas Tech. The Irish led late in the contest, but ultimately, the Red Raiders, who had one of the top defenses in college basketball, proved too much to overcome. 

The team will look different next year, with Hubb, Laszewski, Wesley and Atkinson all likely headed for professional careers. However, the team still brings back plenty of talent as Ryan and Goodwin have already announced their return, and McDonald’s All-American J.J. Starling headlines a strong recruiting class. They will look to build on Notre Dame’s success this year and lead them back to the tournament. 

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