Pizza was the last thing on anyone's mind
So when you saw that men's NCAA Tournament draw for the first time about a month ago, with Duke looming just above Notre Dame on the bracket, what did you think?
Maybe: "Well, making it to the second round means something," or the infinitely more eloquent: "Well, the Irish can beat Charlotte, but then ... then, it's friggin' Duke!"
I know both crossed my mind, and a big part of head coach Mike Brey's job involved making sure his players didn't adopt that gut reaction of basketball fans everywhere.
"Every timeout," Brey said, "... I was into our guys hard about, `We're going to Lexington, we are advancing, we're gonna play in the Sweet 16.' I think they needed to hear that because there was a little bit of, `Man, we didn't think we'd be up seven. Maybe we'd be down six or within striking distance.'
"The psychology of that part of the game was huge."
Of course, the Irish lost that second-round game to the Blue Devils 84-77 as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski continued his dominance against his former assistants. But Brey, now 42-21 at Notre Dame, is becoming less and less a "former Coach K assistant" and more a name that stands alone as the Irish reappear in the national hoops consciousness.
"I basically wanted to kick his [butt] for two hours on Saturday, and he wanted to kick mine. I love him, he's a good friend. We'll hang out and have a pizza and stuff this summer, but I wanted to kick his [butt], and he wanted kick mine," Brey said.
Someone find me the Tool Man so we can have an "Ar, Ar, Ar" grunt after that. Who wouldn't want to come play for this guy, especially after his team went toe-to-toe with Duke in front of a national audience?
"I was excited when I saw the brackets flash up that way," he said, "because I thought it was an opportunity for us to shine ... and put our program in new company.
"The opportunity and competing well, given how poor we've been in the '90s, helped us. So I didn't look at it like, `Oh, man, [we're] going to play Duke in the second round.' I'm thinking, `If we can get past Charlotte, what an opportunity.'"
Notre Dame didn't fully seize that opportunity, as another team from Indiana did against Duke in the next round, prompting Brey to tell his wife: "They got our darn win — that was ours."
But it's hard to get down about that loss and not get psyched for next season already, even when it's only April. Basketball News and Basketball Times have named point guard Chris Thomas Freshman of the Year and Brey is ready to put him in with some more elite company.
"He's the best [point guard] I've ever been around," Brey said. "He's better than [former Duke standout Bobby] Hurley. His feel for the game, his shooting, is better in that sense, and his maturity and his poise for a freshman ... that was the impressive thing.
"I think what really helped Chris, and he alluded to this ... when you start a game with those three guys [pointing to pictures of David Graves, Ryan Humphrey and Harold Swanagan] and Matt Carroll, it helps you because you've got some men around you out there.
"But ... I think as he turns toward his sophomore year, he's one of the best guards in college basketball. And the neat thing is ... he's got his feet on the ground, and he knows he's got to get stronger this summer, and he knows he's got to work on things."
After last season, the great speculation around Irish basketball centered on another great player, Troy Murphy, and whether he would turn pro. Once he did, speculation moved to guessing what kind of season Notre Dame would have.
Twenty-two wins later, and coming so close to what would have been a huge No. 23, Notre Dame men's basketball is once again, in the words of Brey, looking like a "program" with a maintained level of success.
That doesn't mean things are supposed to come easy now.
"We lose a lot," he said. "I slept better over the summer even though we lost Murphy and Ingelsby because we still had a lot of maturity on the team. When you lose three guys like that [Graves, Humphrey and Swanagan], I'm a little more concerned.
"You know, I get back to, where will we be picked in the West Division? Probably third or fourth, again. Every time we're picked there, we've been pretty good from there. I think this group will go into it ... [looking to go] back to the NCAA Tournament a third year. That's gotta be our goal."
Now, I can't speak to how young guys will step in for the departed seniors or how much bulk Chris Thomas will add.
But with this whole program's newfound attitude, I don't think they'll have to say someone else got their win too much longer.
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, April 10, 2002