First Four: Fighting Irish soaking in return to NCAA Tournament

After taking the Notre Dame men’s basketball team to 12 NCAA Tournament appearances over his first 17 seasons and then missing it four straight years, coach Mike Brey was desperate to get back to the Big Dance.

Sitting in a press conference Tuesday at UD Arena ahead of his team’s practice session at the NCAA First Four, Brey couldn’t help but soak it all in again. Notre Dame faces Rutgers in a play-in game Wednesday night for a chance to advance into the first round against No. 6-seeded Alabama on Fridya.

“I’ve missed the logos, I’ve missed -- yesterday we stretched to the song ‘One Shining Moment,’ -- I’ve missed all that,” Brey said. “I’m channeling all of it as much as I can, and trying to help our guys with it, to enjoy it. And as much as we want to win and we’re going to be hungry, I don’t want us uptight. I want us to smile a little bit when we’re playing. I’ll be smiling on the sideline tomorrow because these are opportunities you don’t get much playing in this thing.”

Notre Dame made it to the Round of 32 in its last appearance in 2017, following back-to-back Elite Eight finishes. In 2018, the Fighting Irish missed the tournament but got an NIT berth but that was their last postseason appearance so no one on the current team has experienced the Big Dance with Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish were 14-19 in 2019, and while they might have had a chance during a 20-win season in 2020, the tournament was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. They were just 11-15 last year.

“It feels like a good feeling after four years being able to actually get a chance to play, play for something deeper into March,” senior guard Prentiss Hubb said. “And I feel like it’s an exciting experience. We’ve got to take advantage of everything that we have been working for this season. And I think that’s good for all of us.”

Senior guard Dane Goodwin added, “Obviously it’s pretty exciting. I came in here at Notre Dame with intentions of making it every year but obviously we haven’t been there yet. And very much looking forward to this. Been waiting, working a lot. This group’s been through a lot. It’s cool to see it finally coming together at the end. And hopefully we can make a deep run here.”

While the tournament experience is new for Goodwin, he’s familiar with UD Arena. His father, Damon Goodwin, played basketball at the University of Dayton from 1982-83 through 1985-86 and was a seventh-round draft pick of the Phoenix Suns in 1986. Damon Goodwin, who was inducted into the UD Hall of Fame, now is the head coach at Capital University and the program’s all-time winningest coach.

“It’s obviously very cool and very special to be back,” Dane Goodwin said. “I’ve been here plenty of times, been to plenty of games. Actually been to a few First Four games as well. And we’ve always talked about that, my family, my dad included. We’ll have plenty of family here. And plenty of events and stuff going on. But it’s really cool.

“I have very fond memories here. My first thing comes to mind, my dad getting inducted into the UD Hall of Fame. That game was pretty special. Pretty cool to experience that with him and my family as well. A lot of those memories come back. And looking to make it one more here.”

Notre Dame almost didn’t get in, though. The Irish ended up on the bubble after Virginia Tech upset them as a seventh seed in the first round of the ACC tournament, where Notre Dame was the second seed.

That early exit just made the team hungrier, Brey said.

“We were very disappointed in how we performed there,” Brey said. “Come to find out, that team that beat us -- funny story, when I hired Anthony Solomon back here last spring, which was a key hire for us, he said tell me about the league. I said Virginia Tech. He said, what? Duke. I said Virginia Tech.

“And they’ve had our number and they’ve not been a great matchup for us. So we really respect them. But just how we, our shot selection, our turnovers, being loose with the ball was disappointing. And it’s something we’ve addressed. And it’s something that, against a team that can turn you over, we’ve got to be really good with it.”

About the Author