March 13, 2015
It's become quite apparent that paying some version of basketball dues is a requirement of Atlantic Coast Conference entrance.
A year ago in the University of Notre Dame's first trip to the ACC Men's Basketball Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, the 13th-seeded Irish played on the first afternoon of play (in the first game of the tournament, yet) and found themselves on the short end of a 12-point decision versus 12th-seeded Wake Forest. The Irish headed home about the same time the top four seeded programs headed into town.
It brought back memories (more like nightmares, actually) of Notre Dame's early days in the BIG EAST Conference when, year after year, the Irish always seemed to be stuck with a first-round postseason tourney matchup against Syracuse. Those never went well. In fact, it took five years for Notre Dame to win its first BIG EAST Tournament game.
The Irish haven't been the only ACC newcomer earning a rude welcome.
Last year, likewise in its first season in the ACC, Syracuse claimed the number-two overall league tourney seed, only to see the Orange bounced out by North Carolina State in its opening quarterfinal game.
Earlier Thursday, fourth-seeded Louisville, yet another program in its initial ACC Tournament, ended up on the wrong end of the score against North Carolina.
That makes three pretty solid programs historically--Notre Dame, Syracuse and Louisville--at a combined 0-3 in all-time play in the ACC Tournament as of dinnertime Thursday. And those are three proud programs coached by the combination of Mike Brey, Jim Boeheim and Rick Pitino, all of them with national coach of the year, national championship and/or hall of fame credentials.
The beat goes on. Miami lost its first ACC postseason attempt in 2005. Virginia Tech dropped its first game in its first two seasons in the tournament. Heck, go all the way back to 1980 and read about Georgia Tech (yup, in its first season in the ACC) losing an overtime matchup against top seed Maryland in its first tourney outing. In fact, it took the Yellow Jackets four years before they won their first ACC Tournament contest.
That's why Notre Dame's quarterfinal triumph late Thursday night over sixth seed Miami seemed to mean more than just another win on the ledger. And maybe more so for Brey, the former longtime Duke assistant who cut his teeth in this league and admittedly was more than a little disappointed that his first season as a head coach in the ACC in 2013-14 provided so little fruit.
It certainly didn't come easy Thursday, as the Irish lost every bit of a 20-point first half lead before coming from behind to win 70-63.
The players sporting Irish colors Thursday night may not have been able to completely appreciate the level of satisfaction produced by a single victory. After all, they're more interested in extending an impressive season that now has tied the record for most victories by a Notre Dame men's basketball team in the modern era. And, as the number-three seed, this was a game the Irish were supposed to win.
"It shows how tough the league is," said Steve Vasturia, who helped with a team-leading 16 points. "No matter what the seed is or what the record is in the regular season, it's a battle."
"In the ACC, there is no comfortable lead," said Pat Connaughton, who added 14 points in the first half when it appeared the Irish would breeze.
Brey remembers as well as anyone how hard those BIG EAST Tournament victories proved to come by--and how ultimately satisfying it was when the Irish earned their keep in that conference well enough to make appearances in the Friday night semifinals on four occasions.
"It's one more step," he told his team in the locker room on this night.
The Irish certainly understand this represents a process. Notre Dame fans remain barely cognizant with the local Greensboro restaurant scene. No reason to suggest anyone from Notre Dame has spent enough time in North Carolina yet to consider filing for voting privileges.
But the Irish can comfort themselves with the reality that they've at least eliminated the donut next to their name in the ACC Tournament record book.
Don't count Notre Dame's ACC dues as paid in full quite yet.
But, at least alert the conference auditors that an installment payment is now on the books.
-- John Heisler, senior associate athletics director