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    The Constant in Notre Dame Basketball

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    ND v Syracuse photo by Marcus Snowden (141).JPG

    Over the course of every summer and fall, I run into a handful of Notre Dame alumni, degenerate gamblers and degenerate Notre Dame alumni gamblers, and for the next 5 to 10 minutes we go through the dreaded Larry David small-talk wringer.

    "What are you doing nowadays?"

    I signed a confidentiality agreement at work so I'm not really at liberty to share that information, but I can say and do say, "Hi, my name is Waiter, I'll be your zach this evening."

    But the only question they really care about is, "How are the Irish going to be this year?"

    If I wasn't a first-born and therefore in possession of a crippling people pleaser component to my personality, I'd say, "Bro-ham, I don't know, how's the stock market going to be this year?" But instead I give them some half-baked analysis of personnel and chemistry.

    So, what I usually do is start with the guys I know best, then factor in an off-season improvement variable and go from there.

    The worst is when I try to describe the younger guys. Part of me just wants to call up the young'uns and say: "You don't know what it was like back in my day. You didn't have to do the Band of Brothers beat down with the Dog Faced Gremlin (our strength coach). You don't know what 50 Day was. When I was your age, we didn't even have Facebook. We had TheFacebook. You know how much time was wasted typing "the" all those times when I could have been on Twitter? I'll never know because we didn't have that either, you spoiled brat."

    Oh, sorry what was your question? How's the new kid, Pat Connaughton? I, uh, you know, I know for a fact that he has two legs so he's probably pretty good. After that, they realize that I don't have an abundance of useful information, and we part ways.

    But over the past couple of seasons, another question has surfaced toward the end of the season, and that's, "Why and how is Notre Dame as good as it is?"

    In previous years the first thing I would do is go down the list of players and what they have done well and how they have complemented one another, giving the players nearly all of the credit. And I could certainly do the same this year.

    But it would not be a complete analysis, or an honest one.

    Here is a team that lost its best and most experienced player, Tim Abromaitis, early in the season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament. At that point, I think everyone wrote off the Irish, including me. I thought they were going to go 0-20 in the Big East in 18 games. Yes, some of them were going to feel like double losses.

    But then they started winning. Again. And again. The nine-game Big East winning streak that started with Syracuse was nothing short of amazing. If Biff Tannen from "Back to the Future" could have taken a sports almanac back a couple of months, I don't even think he would have been able to pull the trigger on those bets. So what's the best explanation for all their success?

    Was it because of the tremendous development and magnetic hands of Jack Cooley? Certainly. Was it because they have the best defensive backcourt in Coach Mike Brey's tenure? Yes. Was it because of the emergence of Scott Martin as glue guy, defensive stalwart and leader? All of these things are reasons they have been successful, but we are still missing the X-factor.

    It has taken me seven years to see it, but the X-factor is Brey.

    To begin to understand Brey as a coach, you first need to understand his personality, and as far as characters go, he is an all-time American original.

    You know the line from "Tommy Boy": "he could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves"? Brey could sell white gloves to a woman already covered in ketchup Popsicles. He is a conversational chess wizard, always three, four, five steps ahead of the curve. His delivery is equal parts high school coach, Southern gentleman and a Leisure Suit Larry version of Phil Jackson. He has had enough one-liners to be able to retire and live off bumper sticker sales, and I can't wait for the day when he is a broadcast analyst, as he is one of the funniest dudes you'll meet.

    During film sessions, it is not uncommon for Brey, in the middle of a play, to start saying: "You know, fellas, I just knew that shot was going in. The ball movement, the unselfishness, the basketball gods were in our favor on that one."

    Ditching X's and O's for a karmic motion offense did not always make sense to me when I was in school, and that's probably why I could not hit a free throw to save my life.

    After I graduated, I tried to get a graduate assistant's position (something Notre Dame does not have) with the team, not because that was my dream, but because I was an 18-year-old trapped in a 22-year-old body, and I didn't know which way was up. I was in a dark place.

    When I went into the meeting with Coach, he said: "You have the kind of personality that can either heat the building ... or burn it down." What went through my head was, Yeah, well, if I don't find some kind of life direction or employment, I won't be able to pay for heat, let alone rent, and I'll most likely end up burning the apartment complex down -- whoa. How did you do that? How did you know?"

    It would have been an entirely wrong decision to prop me up at that point in my life. It would have been mutually destructive. And he knew that, and told me as smoothly and thoughtfully as possible.

    One of the first things Coach ever said to me turned out to be one of the most significant. It was during my first year, one of the very first practices, and I had forced up a terrible attempt at a 3-point shot. He pulled me aside later and said, "You don't need to reinvent yourself."

    It took me seven years to figure out that he was not talking about on-court skills. He was talking about personality. And therein lies the rub. Don't reinvent yourself. The guys who try to reinvent themselves falter. He is not saying, "Don't improve," he is saying, "Understand who you are, and translate that to the court."

    Immature players do not thrive in his system. Make yourself a man and you will have an open seat at the table. And that is not saying you cannot be a kid or that you cannot make mistakes, but when you step on the court and put that jersey on, you better take accountability for yourself and you better at least resemble a grownup.

    Looking at this year's team, I see nothing but guys who routinely step up and make the right play, from freshmen to fifth-year seniors, and they all do it with a confidence that they did not have at the start of the season. And for anyone who has watched this team's trajectory over the past couple of months, it has been a master class in personality management and confidence-building. Coach has an intuitive feel for what guys are thinking, what they are going through, and what they need to hear to make improvements and be successful, and he only gets better as he gets older.

    Coach Brey is not going to beat you over the head with any of this because he knows those lessons never stick. He pushes the buttons he needs to, and you cannot argue with the results. So, while it took some time for me to figure it out, this might be the best coaching job that he has done, and he certainly deserves a great deal of credit. He does not have the most talented team. He does not have the most athletic team. But what he does have is a team that earned a double-bye in the Big East tournament. That's what happens when you have the basketball gods in your pocket.

    - Zach Hillesland

    Irish Ready for South Florida

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    Eight hours before tip-off, the Notre Dame men's basketball team visited The Sports Club/LA for a final walkthrough and shootaround. The club, located in Manhattan's Upper East Side, has a pair of basketball courts on the seventh floor. The elevators open directly to the gym floor, where there is a rock-climbing wall in between the courts.

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    The Irish ran through some stretches, before walking through a few of the situations they might face against South Florida's offensive and defensive sets. After the quick walkthrough, Coach Brey caught up with UND.com to preview tonight's matchup. The team grabbed some water and took a break in the club lobby to catch the end of the Syracuse-UConn quarterfinal game.

    Afterwards, the Irish returned to the hotel, where they will have a team Mass and pregame meal before heading over to Madison Square Garden later this evening.

    Coach Brey's squad tips off tonight at 9 pm (probably closer to 9:30, following the end of the Louisville-Marquette game) against South Florida. Watch the action on ESPN and follow the live blog right here on Irish UNDerground.

    - Josh Flynt ('11)

    Game Day in NYC

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    After two days in The City, it's almost game time. The Notre Dame men's basketball team took to Madison Square Garden this morning for a shootaround as they prepare for tonight's 9 pm quarterfinal against South Florida.

    Upon arrival at the Garden, the Irish took the famous freight elevator up to the court. They don't call it the World's Most Famous Arena for nothing. It's pretty amazing to think about the celebrated coaches, athletes, musicians and performers who have taken that same ride up to the court, locker rooms or backstage area.

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    Walking down the hallway towards the main floor, the walls are decorated with photos from some of the legendary games and performances that have passed through MSG over the years.

    All-time greats such as The Rolling Stones, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Frank Sinatra, as well as some of this generation's most accomplished recording artists - Beyonce, Jay-Z and Coldplay, among others.

    #2 seed Marquette was finishing up their walkthrough right before the Irish took the court, and as soon as they finished, Connecticut and Syracuse were arriving to get ready for their noon quarterfinal matchup.

    The Irish returned to the hotel after the shootaround, but will head out to The Sports Club/LA later this afternoon for a final walkthrough.

    Plenty more coming later today on Irish UNDerground. 9 hours until game time.

    Sean McDonough, Bill Raftery and Jay Bilas will have the call (and the best view in the house) on ESPN.

    - Josh Flynt ('11)

    You Don't Want To Be ...

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    ... the man sitting across a chessboard from the three-time
    BIG EAST Men's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of the Year.

    BIG EAST Stage Is Set

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    Get ready. Game time is less than 22 hours away.

    After posting a 56-47 win over Villanova in the final second round BIG EAST game on Wednesday night, South Florida earned a quarterfinal berth and rematch with third-seeded Notre Dame. Anthony Collins scored 17 and Victor Rudd Jr. added 13 for the Bulls, who won their 20th game of the season.

    The Bulls and Irish met on Jan. 10 in South Bend, a game that Notre Dame won, 60-49. As is often the case at Purcell Pavilion, the Irish used a big second half run to break the game open. With 9:17 to play, Notre Dame led 40-37, but over the next 5:07, the Irish reeled off 14 straight to build up a 17-point lead, on the way to their third victory of the young BIG EAST season.

    Three Irish players scored in double figures, including Scott Martin who registered 15 points and 13 rebounds for his second consecutive double-double. Jack Cooley led all scorers with 16 points, and Jerian Grant added 14.

    Forward Augustus Gilchrist led the Bulls with 13 points, while Jawanza Poland chipped in 12. Fittingly, Gilchrist and Poland finished the regular season as USF's leading scorers.

    For more on that game from nearly two months ago, check out the highlights and Coach Brey's post game press conference.

    Shifting attention to tomorrow night, it will be a matchup of overachievers. Notre Dame was picked to finish ninth in the BIG EAST this season, while USF was voted 14th. Instead, Coach Brey's Irish squad finished third in the conference (13-5) and Stan Heath's Bulls tied Cincinnati and Georgetown for fourth (12-6).

    It will also be a battle of two strong defenses. Tonight's game marked the ninth straight contest in which the Bulls held their opponent under 60 points. Likewise, the Irish held opposing teams below that mark in nine of 18 conference games, including seven of those during the nine-game winning streak that began on Jan. 21 vs. top-ranked Syracuse.

    On Tuesday, Heath was named the OppenheimerFunds BIG EAST Coach of the Year. The fifth-year USF head coach guided his team to a nine-game improvement over last year's 3-15 conference finish.

    The tournament fun truly begins tomorrow, as the top-4 teams (Syracuse, Cincinnati, Marquette, and of course, Notre Dame) take the court for quarterfinal action. It all starts at noon as the top-seeded Orange face #9 seed Connecticut - a classic BIG EAST rivalry that has produced some memorable games over the years.

    And in the evening, it will be your Fighting Irish in the spotlight - 9 pm on ESPN vs. South Florida. Check back to UND.com and Irish UNDerground tomorrow for more coverage of the Irish as they prepare for the big quarterfinal matchup in NYC.

    - Josh Flynt ('11)

    Courtside with Seth Davis

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    BIG EAST Prep Continues for Irish in NYC

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    It's day two for the Notre Dame men's basketball team in New York City. This morning, the Irish held their second practice at John Jay College, a criminal justice school in midtown Manhattan.

    It was a busy day of classes and the elevators were jam packed, so the Irish elected for four flights of stairs, on their way to the Bloodhounds' gym. John Jay plays in the City University of New York (CUNY) Conference along with Brooklyn College, Hunter College, N.Y.C. Technical and the College of Staten Island, among others.

    On each side, there are eight rows of wooden pullout bleachers, the kind you would see in your average high school gym. There's a second standing-room-only level overlooking the court, where a sign reads, "Occupancy by more than 179 persons is dangerous and unlawful." Not exactly on par with Madison Square Garden.

    But that's beside the point. If Coach Brey were to pull a page out of Norman Dale's book in Hoosiers, the hoop still would have been ten feet - just as it is in the Purcell Pavilion, and just as it will be tomorrow night at the Garden.

    The team ended practice with perhaps the best way to prepare for a game - situational drills. The clock was set to various situations, as the Irish simulated some of the potential scenarios they might face in the coming days.

    Though Tuesday's slate of first round games was rather uneventful, if the past is any indication, the remainder of the BIG EAST tournament will be filled with late-game drama and last-second heroics.

    Third-seeded Notre Dame will play in Thursday's fourth quarterfinal at 9 pm on ESPN against the winner of tonight's late matchup - #14 Villanova vs. #6 South Florida.

    UND.com will have video coverage from today's practice later this afternoon, so stay tuned right here to Irish UNDerground.

    - Josh Flynt ('11)

    Abromaitis Makes It Three Straight

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    While he awaits an NCAA decision on whether or not he will get a sixth year in South Bend, Notre Dame forward Tim Abromaitis adds another incredible accomplishment to his already stellar resume. On Tuesday evening, Abromaitis was named the American Eagle Outfitters BIG EAST Men's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of The Year for an unprecedented third-straight season.

    Last season, Abromaitis joined Arturas Karnishovas of Seton Hall (1993-94) and Emeka Okafor of Connecticut (2003-04) as just the third two-time winner. Today, he becomes the only three-time recipient since the award was first given in 1985. In 2010, he became the second Notre Dame player to receive the honor, joining forward Pat Garrity who earned the recognition in 1998.

    As head coach Mike Brey said in an interview with UND.com, "I'm so proud of Tim. This will never happen again...He truly is a student-athlete. He's the poster boy for student-athletes."

    Unfortunately for the Irish, Abromaitis suffered a season-ending knee injury in late November, and only appeared in two games during the 2011-12 campaign. Last year, he averaged 15.4 points per game and helped guide the Irish to a 27-7 record and #2 seed in the NCAA tournament.

    The Unionville, Ct. native completed his undergraduate degree in just three years, graduating in May 2010, before enrolling in the accelerated one-year MBA program. When it comes to his future with the Fighting Irish, Abromaitis's string of academic excellence may actually hurt his chances for a sixth year.

    When the NCAA make its final ruling, they will probably be asking the same question many of us are wondering, "Tim, what else can you accomplish academically?" Of course, there's always the opportunity to start a Ph.D. or J.D. program.

    Only time will tell if Abromaitis gets another year with the blue & gold, but regardless of what happens, he has been an excellent representative of the university and will be successful, whether or not he continues playing basketball at the collegiate or professional level.

    - Josh Flynt ('11)

    Day One in New York

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    The Notre Dame men's basketball team arrived in New York City last night in preparation for Thursday's quarterfinal BIG EAST tournament matchup with a to-be-determined opponent. At 9 pm tonight, Rutgers battles Villanova for the right to play South Florida on Wednesday. The Irish will take on the winner of Wednesday's game on Thursday at 9 pm on ESPN.

    This morning, the Irish held their first practice at John Jay College, a criminal justice school located in midtown Manhattan. Earlier this evening, Tim Abromaitis won his third consecutive American Eagle Outfitters BIG EAST Men's Basketball Scholar-Athlete of The Year.

    UND.com will have complete coverage of tonight's awards press conference, including interviews with both Abromaitis and head coach Mike Brey. Check back soon, and stay tuned to Irish UNDerground for more coverage of the Irish in the Big Apple throughout the week.

    - Josh Flynt ('11)

    Following Flynt - Full of Memories

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    On Christmas Day, the Notre Dame men's basketball team was 8-5 overall. When the spring semester began, the Irish were 11-8 and 3-3 in BIG EAST play.

    Here we stand on the eve of the BIG EAST tournament, and head coach Mike Brey has his team in a position no one thought they would be, especially after co-captain Tim Abromaitis was lost to a season-ending knee injury in November.

    After posting a 13-5 conference record, the Fighting Irish earned themselves a #3 seed and a double-bye, where they will take on #6 South Florida or the winner of #14 Villanova and #11 Rutgers on Thursday night at 9 pm on ESPN.

    But before Notre Dame takes to the Big Apple, here's a look at some memorable moments from the season so far, saving some of the best for last:

    December 27, 2011 vs. Pittsburgh: Notre Dame kicked off its BIG EAST schedule with a big win over the #22 Panthers. While many were focused on college football's bowl season, Alex Dragicevich hit four 3-pointers and netted a career-high 22 points to lead the Irish to a 72-59 win at Purcell Pavilion. In the end, Pittsburgh was one of the surprise disappointments of the conference this year, but the win set the tone for the Irish's BIG EAST slate. Highlights on UND.com.

    January 29, 2012 at Connecticut: It was not the prettiest offensive performance, but Notre Dame escaped Hartford with a 50-48 win, its third straight victory and second consecutive away from home. Eric Atkins scored 13 points and Jerian Grant added 11, as the Irish defeated the #24 Huskies on their home floor.

    February 8, 2012 at West Virginia: After falling behind by 10 at the half, the Mountaineers fought their way back and took the lead with under five minutes to play. It looked like Notre Dame's winning streak was destined to end in Morgantown, but Atkins, Grant and Scott Martin hit a trio of 3-pointers down the stretch to carry the Irish to 55-51 win, their fifth straight.

    March 2, 2012 vs. Providence: It was a special evening at Purcell Pavilion, as Notre Dame honored Abromaitis and Martin for Senior Night and inducted Adrian Dantley into the Ring of Honor. In the end however, it was junior Jack Cooley who had the biggest night. Cooley posted a career-high 27 points to go along with 17 rebounds, as the Irish held off a furious Providence comeback to win, 75-69, their 21st victory of the season.

    January 7, 2012 at Louisville: While the women's team was locked in a classic battle with Connecticut back in South Bend, down in Louisville, the men's team won its second impressive game of the young BIG EAST season, knocking off the #11 Cardinals in double overtime, 67-65. Atkins finished with 15 points, including six key ones in the final minute of the second overtime to lead Notre Dame to the upset.

    February 4, 2012 vs. Marquette: After heading to the locker room with a four-point lead, Notre Dame dominated the second half to upset the #15 Golden Eagles, 76-59. Pat Connaughton had 23 points and 11 rebounds, and the Irish knocked down 11 3-pointers to win their fourth straight, and fifth of the season against a ranked opponent.

    February 18, 2012 at Villanova: As the Wildcats had a down year, this game was not so much about whom the Irish beat, but rather, how they beat them. Notre Dame erased a 20-point deficit to win its eighth straight BIG EAST contest, 74-70 in overtime. The improbable win was sparked by Connaughton's seven 3-pointers and Cooley's 18-point, 13-rebound performance.

    January 21, 2012 vs. Syracuse: Speechless. A Notre Dame moment. The game of the year.

    For the eighth time in program history, and the sixth straight at Purcell Pavilion, the Fighting Irish defeated a #1 team, knocking off undefeated (20-0) Syracuse, 67-58. Students and fans rushed the court, joining the team in absolute jubilation. It was an incredible you-just-had-to-be-there night to be a Notre Dame fan. What's more, the victory was the start of a nine-game winning streak that helped the Irish climb the BIG EAST standings and national rankings, surely on their way to a NCAA tournament berth when the bracket is announced on Sunday.

    Just for fun...

    And finally, the Best of Jack Nolan - the voice of the Fighting Irish on the Notre Dame Basketball Radio Network.

    It's been a season full of great memories, but before we close the book on 2012, let's hope we can add a few more examples of Jack's signature "Got It!" and "Yes!" to this exciting highlight reel.

    - Josh Flynt ('11)

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