Friday, February 23, 2007

Toil and Trouble

Down the stretch Mike Brey and the crew come, closing in on 10 Big East wins (which they should get at Rutgers even if things go wrong on Saturday vs. the Golden Gold). They've already passed the 20-win plateau in the regular season for the first time since the Sweet 16 season four years ago. Since no Big East team has ever been left out of the NCAAs with at least 10 conference wins and at least 20 overall wins, the Fighting Irish are a lock, right?

Wrong. It's despicable and senseless, but wrong.

The saying goes one should never speak in absolutes, but I've never been shy about doing so, so here goes: If things stay the way they are, no Notre Dame team even remotely on the bubble will ever make the NCAA tournament. If they can find a way to keep Notre Dame out, they will do so, no matter how the logic twists and turns.

For example, if ND loses two of its last three -- falls to Marquette, beats Rutgers, and loses in the first round of the EWSNBN, for example -- expect to hear a lot about (a) the non-conference SOS and (b) losing to SJU, USF, and [insert BET #12 seed here] as the reasons why they were kept out. Doesn't matter they're the first 10-BE-20-overall team not to make the tournament. It didn't matter they were one of (if not the) first 9-win BE team not to make the tournament four years ago, let alone that it happened to them twice. Whatever rule can apply to keep them out will be applied and all others will be ignored. There'll be furor, but in the end, no accountability. The story will waft away, just like it always does.

Sounds insane? It is, especially when you hear the reason.

Let's go back in time to March of 1990, the last NCAA tournament appearance for the Fighting Irish before the Decade of Dung began. Notre Dame was 16-13 as an Independent, and they were fighting with teams such as DePaul (who had swept ND that season) for a bid. Miracle of miracles, Notre Dame found itself in the tournament, where they got waxed by Virginia.

Jump forward to March of 1992, John MacLeod's first season. ND had faced 11 of the top 25 teams that season, most of them on the road during a 45-day span without a home game. They were just over .500, and were squarely on the bubble, but had a much better resume than they'd had two years before. Then they got screwed by a no-call in the waning moments at DePaul (sound familiar?) and even with an incredibly high SOS, were left out of the NCAA tournament (sound familiar?), getting to the NIT championship game instead (sound familiar?).

And ever since then, the bubble has been trouble. 1997. 2000. 2004. 2005. The list goes on, and it'll keep going on.

"Well, that's all well and good, Mike," you're saying now, "but you haven't told us the reason yet."

In a way, though, I have. And I'll give you a hint.

Between the first two dates we talked about -- March of 1990 and March of 1992 -- something momentous happened at Notre Dame, something that had never happened before at any school and has not happened since. It created incredible upheaval in the landscape of college athletics and affected every other major college athletics program.

The event? Notre Dame signed an exclusive contract with NBC to cover its home games in football.

To say the other schools were pissed is an understatement. They all lost out on their own television deal, which the networks demanded be re-negotiated since ND games in South Bend would not be included, which meant money came (and continues to come) out of their pockets. That contract means ND can afford to take the high road on moral issues like player suspensions, and doesn't have to crawl hat-in-hand to ESPN to get their games broadcast on Wednesday and Thursday nights. ND wins, every one else loses.

But what can they do about it? No school is going to turn down a football date with Notre Dame and the guaranteed national television audience (and boost to their season ticket bases if the contract included at least one home game) that comes with it, even if the Irish are in a down cycle. That's just making a bad situation worse, cutting off their noses to spite their faces. They were angry, but not stupid.

Outside of football, though? Ah ha. An opportunity to extract the pound (or more) of flesh. And what better sport to hit them where it might hurt (at least a little) financially than men's basketball?

Some of the responses weren't at all subtle, like Kansas pulling out of a planned four-game contract. But much of it was a lot more so, including that from the NCAA Selection Committee, which was (and still is) made up of AD's from schools that (for the most part) got screwed in the NBC deal.

Outlandish? Sour-grape-ish? I thought so too, because I didn't believe it when it was first mentioned to me after the screw job Matt Doherty's team got.

Then, a couple years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to some folks at the various conferences for reasearch for a book I was considering (but haven't written ... yet). During small talk, I mentioned how I was getting tired of being on the wrong end of the bubble come NCAA time.

The conference person's response, summarized: "Unfortunately, you're probably going to have to get used to that unless that football contract goes away."

I was stunned. Dumbfounded. Are they really that petty? Did Pat Garrity get his title of "best ND player never to play in the NCAA tournament" because of the NBC deal? Is Mike Brey on the hot seat because other schools are pissed we get Hammond and Hayden and (until this season) crappy production value?

Apparently so. And that blows.

So don't quote past performance to me with regard to win totals and RPI or anything like that. It's all meaningless when it comes to Notre Dame. Because anything but a pristine above-reproach resume will have the Irish on the outside looking in every time, integrity of the Selection Committee be damned.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

While you might be accurate about the football contract, the hard and fast of it is that ND's basketball teams have really not been that good in the clutch to feel that we have been slighted. I have followed ND BBall since I graduated there in '62, and while our quality of player is good, our performance has been mediocre overall. I thought getting into the Big East might do some good, but until we can win the Big East outright or have a solid chance to win in the BE tournament, we always will be on the bubble. It is nice to get accepted for the NCAA tournament, but why get all lathered up when all we do is play mediocre BBall. This year is a good example. Going 18-0 at home, and not winning any big games on the road. If you think the football contract is the reason, fine, but ND's performance on the court is the main reason. If it wins, it goes, and never has to worry about any bubble. Perhaps you should look closer at the coaching. Carter is a senior, and playing like he belongs in the NBA. Where has he been hiding for the other 3 years?

Greg Weismantel

2/24/2007 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger El Kabong said...

The subject of RuC and the ebbs and flows of his game has been covered extensively in The Pit. If he was playing like he belonged in the NBA consistently, you wouldn't be asking about hiding.

2/24/2007 12:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Greg, I think this argument is unfounded. While it may be true, the reality is that this has not been a tournament-worthy team the past few years. In the past years we have been really winning on the road and the non-conference schedules have been mediocre at best. I mean outside of the non-conf. wins this year, when's the last time ND had a big non-conference win in its back pocket as a bubble team? The last one I can remember was IU in '04 and they were an NIT team that year. In '05, ND had no business losing to Rutgers in the first round of the BET. I don't feel getting snubbed that year was a big of a travesty as everyone else does. If you can't beat freakin' Rutgers with everything on the line, then you don't deserve a bid. I felt that they deserved to be an NIT team that year.

Regardless, this team is a tournament team this year. The SOS is weak and some of the conference losses (hello, South Florida) have been really bad. But the two non-conference wins (Bama, Maryland) are big and winning @Syracuse is a better road win than most of the so-called "bubble" teams you'll see. You just can't tell me that ND isn't one of the best 32 teams in the country.

Go Irish

2/24/2007 03:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since 1996 ND has 3 wins and 11 loses in the Big East Tournament. That doesn't help if your a bubble team every year.

2/24/2007 08:49:00 PM  
Blogger El Kabong said...

It's not a question of the argument being unfounded. A BCS conference administrator confirmed it to me off the record.

2/24/2007 11:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not a journalist, but I thought "off the record" meant it couldn't be reported. But you did report it. Did you mean to say, "not for attribution"? It matters because someone who says something not for attribution wants it publicized but doesn't want his/her name identified with it, usually for job reasons, so his motives may be suspect.

2/25/2007 06:13:00 AM  
Blogger El Kabong said...

It was said outside the confines of the interview while we were talking informally (although the interview itself was pretty informal). He didn't specify whether we were on the record or not, but I'd rather err on the side of caution.

2/25/2007 08:19:00 AM  

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