Brey leads Irish to Sweet Sixteen
By ANDREW SOUKUP
Mike Brey will have a hard time forgetting what transpired on his 44th birthday.
In the bowels of Indianapolis' RCA Dome, in front of a throng of screaming Irish fans, in the national television spotlight, Notre Dame advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1987 — the latest step taken by a basketball program slowly emerging as one of the nation's best.
"Tonight, I was probably going to have a beer anyway," a giddy Brey said in the post-game interview. "Now I might have two."
Sure, Arizona trounced the Irish in the round of 16. But the goal from the early days of summer practice was to make it to the second weekend — a phrase that took on a life of its own over the course of the basketball season.
Behind the leadership of sharpshooting guard Matt Carroll and Maryland transfer Dan Miller, Notre Dame surged to a 5-1 start, yet flew below the national radar unranked and unrespected.
And for good reason — Notre Dame had lost the nucleus of last year's team (Ryan Humphrey, David Graves and Harold Swanagan) to graduation, and most would have considered Notre Dame's season a success had the Irish simply made the NCAA Tournament, much less won a couple of games.
That all changed in December, when the Irish knocked off three top-10 opponents in one week —Marquette, Maryland and Texas — and shot from "Others receiving votes" to No. 6 and the ensuing pressure that accompanied such a lofty ranking.
Suddenly, the Irish players, who had spent most of their careers playing as the underdog, now found themselves in the national spotlight. And for the most part, they handled it well, aside from a pair of blowout losses to Pittsburgh and Kentucky.
But after Notre Dame beat Pittsburgh on Feb. 9 in the first meeting of top 10 foes in the Joyce Center in over a decade, the road to the Final Four appeared to run through South Bend.
That's when the Irish train started to derail. Initially able to control their own destiny in terms of their Big East fate, the Irish lost four of their last seven games of the regular season and lost in the first round of the Big East Tournament.
So in between the first-round exit and Selection Sunday, the Irish hunkered down to try to figure out what their problems were. And whatever they found, they appeared to fix.
The first sign something had changed came the day before the NCAA Tournament began, when every Irish player shaved his head in a sign of team unity. Grinning with enthusiasm in the RCA locker room, Notre Dame's players displayed none of the tightness that characterized their final month of the season.
Still, the Irish, seeded fifth in the West Region, survived a major scare in No. 12 Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who missed a layup with two seconds on the clock. Instead of getting upset, the Irish squeaked into the second-round with a 70-69 win.
The second-round game against fourth-seeded Illinois, however, went much easier. The Irish relied on a commitment to defense and a sensational 3-point shooting performance to surge into the Sweet Sixteen.
"Everybody said we couldn't win because everything was so new, we should stick to what we were doing," Chris Thomas said. "But since we got away from the Big East, we have a new mindset. It's a new season."
A 88-71 loss to a red-hot Arizona team showed how far the Irish still have to go before they can truly be considered. Few doubt that Notre Dame's long-term future is bright. Its short-term future, however, is still in question, especially after Carroll and Miller's graduation and Thomas' declaration that he'll depart early for the NBA Draft.
But then again, that's what everybody thought a year ago, too.
All Sports Stories for Friday, July 11, 2003