by Kevin O'Neill
Everything you need to know about Notre Dame’s 76-58 loss to Iowa State in its NCAA Tournament opener can be summarized in the final 5.2 Seconds of the first half.
The Irish played a terrible first half thanks primarily to 14 turnovers that began with their first possession. Nevertheless, Jack Cooley grabbed an offensive rebound and put it into the basket to cut ISU’s lead to 10 and, presumably, send his team to the locker room feeling like it was in the game.
The ball wasn’t through the net before Cyclones Head Coach Fred Hoiberg called timeout to stop the clock and give his team one last chance to score. When the game resumed, Will Clyburn took the inbounds pass in the backcourt, dribbled the length of the court, and laid the ball into the basket ahead of the buzzer to send ISU to the locker room on a high note.
Notre Dame didn’t force the ball to the sideline, didn’t step forward to stop the ball, and didn’t contest the shot.
One team was in the moment – ready to call timeout immediately to get one last chance to score and ready to attack the basket. The other team was unprepared and confused about what to do. That was the entire game in a nutshell. That has been Notre Dame’s NCAA Tournament performance since 2003 in a nutshell.
Winthrop, Washington State, Florida State, Iowa State… That’s four first weekend blowout losses in the last six trips to the NCAA Tournament, three to lower seeds. The other two tournaments featured close first weekend losses to lower seeds, Old Dominion and Xavier, with ND contributing generously to its own demise.
This is not a record that can be explained by bad match-ups, bad luck, or bad officiating. This is systematic failure.
Mike Brey acknowledged the failure after Friday’s game. “I really would think it’s the next step for our program,” he said. “We’ve been so consistent in the regular season, and we haven’t been able to do much here. That’s what keeps me up at night and keeps me trying to figure out how we can be better at it.”
It sounds like Brey hasn’t been getting much sleep over the last ten years and won’t be sleeping much any time soon.
It’s baffling that a team can perform so well year in and year out in a conference considered among the best, often the best, in college basketball only to be outclassed by teams from less renowned conferences in the NCAA tournament. I have three possible reasons:
- The team is tight.
- The team is poorly prepared.
- The team is both tight and poorly prepared.
I tend to believe #3 because a team that is not prepared is likely to be tight. If it isn’t tight going into the game, it will be as soon as it realizes that it doesn’t have answers for what its opponent is doing.
Preparation for the NCAA Tournament is different from preparation for conference games. Notre Dame plays the same coaches and therefore the same styles of play year after year. It sees mostly the same players on each team from one year to the next. Game plans are not created. They are revised.
Come the NCAA Tournament, opponents’ tactics, tendencies, and players are new. Game plans must be prepared from scratch, and they must be prepared on short notice. Given the results, given how poorly the team has played in tournament after tournament, it is awfully hard to believe that Mike Brey and his staff possess competency in this critical aspect of college basketball coaching.
Confidence is a result of preparation. Players who expect everything they see and know what to do about it will play with confidence. Players who believe their teammates are as prepared as they are will trust each other to be in position and carry out their assignments, thus allowing them to execute without hesitation. It has been a long time since Notre Dame has been prepared for an NCAA Tournament game. It has been a long time since Notre Dame basketball players acted like they felt prepared for an NCAA Tournament game.
If Mike Brey wants to succeed in the NCAA tournament and get some sleep at night, he better hire some assistants who excel at scouting, breaking down game film, and preparing game plans. I appreciate loyalty, but Brey will cost himself a job if he doesn’t make significant changes; and he will deserve it. He is just as responsible to the guys on the team as he is to his staff, and he has been doing disservice to the guys on the team by failing to prepare them for the tournament.
Hire one or more assistants from teams that succeed in the postseason. Do it now, Coach Brey, or your successor will.