It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
This was the Golden Era of Irish Basketball. The run of success that started in 2015 would continue. Last year, the Irish were a mis-timed rolled ankle from hanging another ACC banner and deep NCAA run. This year, they returned the rightful ACC player of the year and were picked to make a successful run through the league.
It was supposed to be a year full of milestones and celebrations. The senior class of Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, and Martinas Geben — along with Matt Gregory and grad student Austin Torres — were going to go out on top. They would easily surpass the record for wins in an Irish uniform. They’d hug Mike Brey as he celebrated passing Digger Phelps on the all-time list. They’d make quick work of eclipsing Brey’s 400th win at Notre Dame and 500th overall for his career. The ACC Tournament was returning Brooklyn, a site that witnessed Irish success.
Sure, there were a few concerns. Where would the Irish get their shooting and generate spacing? How quickly could DJ Harvey enter the mix? How would the rotation sort out?
A t-shirt and lei fueled romp through Maui quickly erased those concerns. Notre Dame ran through Chaminade and LSU on the way to a showdown with Wichita State. Martinas Geben’s clutch FT’s secured the championship and all those concerns melted away. The Irish rocketed their way to 5th in the polls.
A week later, a very good Michigan State team, absolutely pantsed the Irish in the ACC/B10 Challenge. Writing off the poor performance was easy. The Spartans fed off a raucous home atmosphere and had just destroyed North Carolina. The Irish were suffering a little Maui hangover. Understandable.
A week later, however, cracks started to form. A three-point loss to lowly Ball State at home was cause for alarm. Eleven days later, an OT loss to a pathetic Indiana team in the cursed Crossroads Classic rang loud alarm bells. The Irish seemed to sleep walk through the late stages in Indy, losing both their offensive and defensive identities. Irish fans, accustomed to great late-game execution, saw an easy victory slip away due to carelessness by veteran players. Notre Dame fell from the top 25 after the Indy disaster. Months later, those two games would be the core of the narrative against placing ND in the NCAA Tournament.
The Irish opened ACC play with a comfortable home win over the always tricky Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Bonzie Colson led with 22 and 18 in 39 minutes of action. The win tied Mike Brey with Digger Phelps. All was right in the Irish basketball universe.
But then, it wasn’t.
On January 2nd, Notre Dame announced that Colson had fractured a bone in his foot, required surgery, and would miss a minimum of eight weeks. Not all the air came out of the balloon at once. There was the feel-good beat-down of NC State to give Brey the record. However, that game further complicated the season. Matt Farrell’s severely sprained ankle would sideline him for several games.
Even still, Notre Dame gutted out one of the toughest performances in program history. They went up to Syracuse and beat the NCAA Tournament competitor head-to-head on their own floor. Despite missing both Colson and Farrell, Rex Pflueger’s late tip sealed one of the more satisfying victories in recent memory.
Unfortunately, that would be the last time we’d see the Irish emerge victorious for an entire month. Notre Dame would get close. They beat North Carolina at home, but some of the most egregious officiating “mistakes” we’ve seen in our time in the ACC cost Notre Dame the home win. Again, it is easy to imagine that home win being enough to put ND in the NCAA field. Sadly, the ACC couldn’t afford their show pony to fall below .500 in the conference. The Irish took fellow tournament snub Louisville to the traditional 2OT game, but came up short.
The Louisville game stands out as especially painful. Not only did the Irish miss a chance to scrape their way to a .500 record in the ACC, but they lost DJ Harvey for the season. Harvey’s accelerated development was supposed to be the consolation prize for missing Colson.
Short handed and battling, Notre Dame lost another close one to Virginia Tech. It was the Hokies’ third best three-point shooting night of the season, but Notre Dame was within two points late. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: they did it without Farrell or Colson. Blowouts at Duke and NC State followed. The Irish had played well in the state of North Carolina through the previous three seasons. The sequential beat-downs stung even more. The losing streak reached seven.
On the home stretch, there were signs of life. Notre Dame managed to scratch out a 5-3 record in the late stages of the ACC season. Farrell’s return to health and an easy schedule set up a narrative that if Colson could get healthy, the Irish would have a shot. Like a fairy tale, Colson’s return against the lowly Pitt Panthers was spectacular. The Irish were back. A close loss to number one Virginia managed to feed they hype. Every pundit and talking head was discussing the Irish. Bonzie’s return was a feel-good story heading in to Brooklyn and the ACC Tournament.
A sub-par performance in the sleepy opening day matchup with Pitt again took the air out of the Irish balloon. Notre Dame started to slip from projected brackets. A stirring comeback Wednesday night against Virginia Tech seemed to right the ship. It took ten minutes of brilliant basketball, and an epic Hokie collapse to keep the season alive. The damage, however, was done. Many believed ND now had to beat Duke to punch their ticket. The great play from the last ten minutes from the VT game carried into the first 30 of the Duke game. Notre Dame played fairly well. Sadly, the combination of a wise Duke game plan and inevitable Irish fatigue caught up to Mike Brey and his team. The Duke game got away from them in the second half. The blowout loss fully turned the narrative. Even with Bonzie back, the field might not have a place for Notre Dame.
Sunday confirmed Irish fans worst fears. The NCAA had an opportunity to reward a school who values education and maintains academic integrity. The NCAA could endorse a team led by seniors who got better during their time on campus and leave with valuable degrees. Instead, they put Syracuse in the field. There’s no logic to it. There’s no defense for it. Sitting here cataloging the reasons it is stupid won’t make any of us feel any better.
Where does that leave us?
Even if the Irish can get off the mat and find a way to secure a title as the 69th best team in the country, was it a successful season?
I’m not sure. I’ve long said that my bar for a good/bad season is a bid. Having lived through 1992, it seems like the right spot for the bar. That didn’t happen this year, so it can’t go down as a good season. When you don’t have success, fans always look for someone to blame. You want to identify the thing that happened. Who screwed up? Who is to blame?
You could try to parse that all you want this year, but you’ll never get a satisfying answer. Sometimes life is hard and unfair. That will be the underlying postscript to this Irish season. Other than some nice play in Maui and a great Pflueger tip-in, the season was devoid of good breaks. Some of that, like IU and Ball State was self-inflicted. Most of it was just bad luck. The Irish were on a great run of health over the past few years. Outside Eric Katenda’s horrible injury, Notre Dame had avoided the sort of bad breaks that marked this season.
It isn’t quite fair to this wonderful senior class to look ahead to the impact on future seasons. They’ve elected to pursue the title as the best of the NCAA snubs in the NIT. They’ve decided to be part of the rules experiment. Most importantly, they’ve decided to band together and wear an Irish jersey for a few more weeks. They’ll empty the tank a few more times. That definitely deserves our respect and support. In the end, this was a unique bunch that fought and scrapped when it seemed every single break was determined to go against them.