March 16, 2012
GREENSBORO, N.C. (AP) - Notre Dame entered conference play struggling to find some confidence after a frustrating start to the year that included losing their best player to injury.
Xavier was trying to regroup, too, though more from an ugly brawl with a rival in December that threatened to derail the entire season.
Neither the Fighting Irish nor the Musketeers looked like they'd make it back to the NCAA tournament this season. Yet they're meeting in Friday's South Regional, proof that they were tough enough to figure out a way to regroup and salvage a season that was going nowhere just two months ago.
"We've definitely had our bumps in the road," Xavier senior Kenny Frease said, "but as a team, I think we've been able to really come together the past few weeks."
He could've been speaking about either team.
The seventh-seeded Fighting Irish (22-11) lost preseason all-BIG EAST pick Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury in November, then lost four of nine to start the season. They stood at just 11-8 in the middle of January before a nine-game winning streak - starting against then-unbeaten Syracuse - finally got Notre Dame moving in the right direction.
That's when a team that looked different than what coach Mike Brey had envisioned in preseason finally started to figure out how to win with its new makeup. Junior forward Jack Cooley improved from averaging about four points last year to 12 points and nine rebounds this season to become an all-conference pick, while sophomores Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins each averaged about 12 in a balanced attack.
That trio, along with senior captain Scott Martin, helped Notre Dame finish third in the BIG EAST with 13 league victories before losing to eventual champion Louisville in the conference tournament semifinals.
Now Notre Dame is back in the NCAAs for the third straight season and eighth time in 12 years under Brey in a run that Atkins called "an up-and-down kind of roller-coaster year."
"To have a year start off in that sort of fashion where we didn't have Tim and lost him right away almost seemed unfair for our team," Cooley said. "But then to do what we did and pull it together so well and go on that nine-game win streak in the BIG EAST is just huge, and it was a pretty fun year."
Things didn't look any better for the 10th-seeded Musketeers (21-12) in January than they did for Notre Dame. Yet Xavier's fall followed a reputation-destroying incident that was replayed on sports and news shows alike - the on-court brawl at the end of a win against crosstown rival Cincinnati on Dec. 10.
The Musketeers were ranked No. 8 nationally and unbeaten at the time. But three of their top players, including star guard Tu Holloway, faced suspensions of varying lengths. And Xavier followed the brawl by losing five of six in a stretch that Holloway said drained the team's confidence.
Things didn't get much better in February. The team alternated wins and losses for the entire month.
Xavier coach Chris Mack said his players became closer as they tried to ignore the heavy criticism that followed the fight. And that might have been what helped them finally regroup with a win against Charlotte in the regular-season finale, followed by two wins in the Atlantic 10 tournament before falling to St. Bonaventure in the final.
"I don't think there's a manual for a coach, for a program, for your players, in how you respond," Mack said. "But the one thing I never questioned about our kids is their desire to compete and want to get better.
"We stepped in a lot of venues where we heard about the incident, but Xavier basketball is so much bigger than 10 bad minutes on a Saturday."
Holloway is averaging a team-best 17 points per game, while junior guard Mark Lyons is averaging almost 16 in an experienced backcourt.
For Notre Dame's Martin, Xavier's seventh straight appearance in the NCAA tournament is proof of the players' toughness.
"It's not an easy thing to do in college basketball because when you're down, people will step on you and keep you down," Martin said of the Musketeers. You really have to credit them. They were able to pick themselves up and keep going."
ABROMAITIS, STRICKLAND CAN ONLY WATCH: Notre Dame's Tim Abromaitis and North Carolina's Dexter Strickland watch games and wish they could help their teammates. Things will only get worse now that the Fighting Irish and Tar Heels are in the NCAA tournament.
Both players are recovering from torn knee ligaments that ended their seasons, leaving them as spectators for Thursday's practices at the Greensboro Coliseum.
"At this point, it's more the mental pain of not playing, I guess you could call it, and knowing the season is coming to an end," said Abromaitis, a fifth-year graduate student. "At the same time, it's been fulfilling to be a part of this team and experience the success with them."
Abromaitis was a preseason all-BIG EAST pick who was hurt in a November practice. Strickland was a starting guard for UNC, the team's best perimeter defender and the backup point guard before he was hurt in a win at Virginia Tech in January. He's recovering from reconstructive surgery last month.
"I've felt like I could've helped my team out in so many different ways," Strickland said. "But I think it's a good thing for me also, just sitting down and getting a better sense of what coach (Roy Williams) wants and actually see what he's talking about."