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Mike Lopresti | | December 16, 2018

Notre Dame basketball is young, motivated to avoid last year’s March heartbreak

Andy Katz bracket breakdown

INDIANAPOLIS — Notre Dame basketball is on a mission. To understand, we should first explain what the coach was doing on that frustrating second Sunday of last March, driving around South Bend with the music on.

 “Listening to jazz,” Mike Brey recollected Saturday. “I was trying to keep my blood pressure down.”

And why? Well, the Irish were 20-14 and squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble that selection Sunday. Brey had just stared at his television and watched Davidson win a surprise Atlantic 10 title, meaning another spot in the bracket was gone. He remembered having one thought: This ain’t good.

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“I didn’t watch the (selection) show. There was no way I was going to sit there and watch it.”

Time for a drive, and soothing music. Somewhere along the way, his brother texted with the bad news Brey was expecting. No place for the Irish. “I had the speech ready,’ Brey said, “about how, `we’re going to be honored to be in the NIT.’”

The news would get even more painful, when NCAA committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen said flat-out in front of the world that Davidson’s 58-57 upset victory over Rhode Island had indeed knocked out . . . Notre Dame. One lousy point.

Notre Dame Basketball Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey leads his team during the game against Oklahoma on December 4, 2018 in Madison Square Garden. Credit: Sarah Stier/Getty Images

 “Heartbreaking,” Brey said. “I think there’s a drive to get back. We had a run of being part of March (seven of the previous eight years). You miss it when you’re not part of it.”

Which brings us to this very weekend, with Brey up to his usual custom of fashioning a winner, and the Irish off to a promising 7-3 start after beating Purdue 88-80 – just the kind of victory away from home that will look good in the March metrics.

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Not that it was all smiles in Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Not with senior team captain Rex Pflueger, the guy who does so much of the floor leading and dirty work, sprawled near the baseline with an injured knee. An MRI is upcoming, but Brey said, “I think we’re prepared for the worst.”

Sigh. Just toss that on the pile of other recent Notre Dame bad turns in the road. The three losses by 11 points, including a buzzer-beater at UCLA. Tri-captain Elijah Burns leaving the team after four games, intending to be a graduate transfer. Now Pflueger. “I’m sick to death,” Brey said about that one.

And that follows last season’s injury wave, including star Bonzie Colson breaking his foot in January, which led to a seven-game losing streak in the ACC. The Irish healed and recovered to go 7-4 their last 11 games, but it was the proverbial too little, and too late. What they really needed was one more Rhode Island basket against Davidson.

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“One thing last year taught us is, we have to be resilient,” guard T.J. Gibbs said.

Which is why beating Purdue was important, after tough consecutive losses to Oklahoma and UCLA.  “If you get out of this stretch 0-3, you’re digging out of a hole for a while,” Brey said. “Are there must-win games in December? We certainly were staring probably at one today.”

This was to be a year for rebuilding, anyway, with three freshmen and a transfer as part of the rotation. “We’re kind of a young group right now,” said junior John Mooney, a rapidly developing junior whose numbers last season – 5.6 points, 3.9 rebounds – have jumped to 12.4 and 9.4, and who led the charge against Purdue with 21 points. “With time, down the stretch, guys are going to start making plays, like we did today.”

That would include sophomore D.J. Harvey, who had knee surgery in February but has staged a speedy recovery and scored 19 against Purdue. And freshman Dane Goodwin, who came off the bench to add 11 points and will be counted on for more if Pflueger is gone. “A fearless winner,” Brey called him.

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This is Brey’s 19th season in South Bend, long enough to be the all-time winningest Irish coach, and produce a series of good teams, even in years when he is supposed to struggle. This one, for instance. Notre Dame was picked ninth in the ACC, returning only two starters. Now one of them, Pflueger, might be out.

“We have been old most of my previous 18 years,” Brey said. “So to have new faces is new territory for me. It’s kind of energizing, teaching every day, thinking about different lineups. The development is kind of happening in real time. You see it when I see it sometimes.”

What everyone saw Saturday against Purdue was Mooney on a tear – “He continues to look like one of the best frontline players in the ACC,” Brey said – and a team making clear progress.

Brey’s words after the mid-November loss at home to Radford – “William & Mary can beat us, Duquesne can beat us (next two games on the schedule), everybody can beat us. That’s who we are right now.”

His words Saturday. “What an afternoon of growth for our group.”

They move on soon to the ACC, where the heavy lifting will have to be done if they are to forget what happened last March 11.

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“The guys last year that came back, they know how it felt to not be a part of the tournament,” said Gibbs, the top scorer who is hardly ever off the floor. “We’re pushing toward it. But you have to take it one game at time. We’re a young team, we’re learning a lot about each other, about ourselves, about what this team can be.”

They’re in fast company on campus. The women won the national championship last April and are No. 2 on the polls. The unbeaten football team faces Clemson in the playoffs.

In his part of the Irish world, Brey seeks more growth, less bad luck – and not to be listening to jazz on the streets of South Bend next March.

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