by Mike Coffey
Disarray is probably one of the least likely words one would use to describe Notre Dame basketball this year. Indeed, this has been the most memorable hoops season we fans have seen going on almost three decades now.
But the numbers six and seven are important ones to how the Fighting Irish finish this campaign. Those numbers are opportunities for them to make some history in a program that needs a little more of it after the famine of the 1990s.
As we sit today, Notre Dame is 21-4, with five regular season games remaining. Much has been made of reaching the 20-win plateau earlier in the calendar year than any other team that preceded it, and while I applaud the accomplishment, I also realize they had more games to do it than the 1973-74 team they supplanted in the record book.
While they won’t be able to catch the 73-74 squad in win percentage, the current team can knock them off one more perch: Most modern-era season wins.
The current season win record is 33, set by the 1908 team. With all due deference to them, those wins were racked up against a bunch of Y.M.C.A. squads under much different rules than exist today. In the modern era, the record is held by the aforementioned 1974 team, who won 26 games (including the legendary defeat that broke UCLA’s win streak).
Brey’s teams have come close before. They won 24 games a couple times, and set the high water mark of his era at 25 in 2008.
With five more wins between now and April, the 2011 team can tie their 1974 counterparts and set a new standard for Brey’s time. Six more wins means they’d stand alone at 27 victories in a season.
It’s not an easy task. At least three of the five remaining regular season games are going to be tough outs. Their quality play in the conference will get them at least one bye in the conference tournament, which, while making it more likely they’d advance, also gives them at least one less game to get this record. And then the NCAA Tournament, in which wins for ND, as I’ll go into in a moment, have been hard to come by.
People like to set a standard for basketball programs by measuring Sweet 16 appearances. The logic goes that even with the environmental disadvantages ND faces in the college basketball of today, we should set that as our goal and achieve it at a reasonable clip.
I have no problems setting high standards for the team and program. I just want to make sure we’re comparing apples and oranges.
In the NCAA Tournament of today, which has been in place for the last 30 years or so, a team has to win two games in it to reach the Sweet 16, with at least one of those games usually against a quality opponent. Even before that structure was implemented, ND teams usually had to go up against a decent squad in their second-round game, so I think the number of victories is applicable across coaching eras.
Since 1953, when they first started playing in postseason tournaments, Notre Dame teams have won two or more games in the NCAA tournament seven times. Three of those were under John Jordan in 1953, 1954 and 1958. Three more were during Digger Phelps’ era: 1978, 1979 and 1987. The seventh was in 2002 under Mike Brey, and if he wants to make some headway towards getting to a triple of his own, this is a good opportunity to do it.
But it’s also an opportunity to set some more NCAA standards. The aforementioned two NCAA tourney wins seems to be tough ceiling to break through at ND, because it’s only happened once: 1978, the year they went to the Final Four. If Brey’s team can make the Elite Eight, they’ll match that high-water mark of three victories. And if they can better that and go to the team’s second Final Four ever, they’ll have done it winning more NCAA tournament games in a season than ND has ever won before.
2010-11 has already been a memorable year for ND hoops fans. With a couple more wins, the team can make those memories a little more permanent by etching them into the program’s record books.