Meet NCAA tournament's most improbable bubble team

Yahoo Sports
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Boston College. (AP)
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Boston College. (AP)

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – In late January, as the Notre Dame basketball team trudged through seven consecutive losses, the most lopsided of them came at Duke. As the Blue Devils’ lead ballooned toward 20 in the second half, the Cameron Crazies serenaded the Irish with a chant no one could have imagined in November: “N-I-T! N-I-T! N-I-T!”

Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey didn’t take the chant personally. He jokes that he thought to himself, “Thank you very much. That’s quite a compliment. That doesn’t even seem realistic. Where do I sign?”

Brey chuckled as he told Yahoo Sports the story outside the visiting locker room at Boston College on Saturday evening. He’d just witnessed senior guard Matt Farrell score 37 points in Notre Dame’s 84-67 flogging of Boston College at Conte Forum. Farrell put on what Brey called “one of the great performances in a Notre Dame uniform” by any Irish player, hitting his first nine 3-pointers of the game.

By conventional metrics, Notre Dame’s 16-11 record and 6-8 ACC mark wouldn’t have the Irish in any kind of NCAA tournament conversation.

But with a late push here – Brey jokes that beating Miami on Monday would allow the Irish to squint and see the bubble – Notre Dame is poised to become the most fascinating bubble team in this year’s NCAA tournament conversation.

Back when Notre Dame beat Wichita State in November to win the Maui Classic, the Irish season percolated with Final Four possibilities. Everything changed in early January when star senior Bonzie Colson, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, fractured his left foot. The injuries didn’t stop there, as Farrell has missed five games in league play with an ankle bone bruise and star freshman D.J. Harvey has missed the past eight games with a bone bruise in his left knee. (Harvey was poised to play against BC, but injured himself in practice on Friday night. Brey told Yahoo Sports he doesn’t expect Harvey back for the rest of the regular season. “Let’s take that off the board,” he said.)

The case for Notre Dame being in the NCAA conversation starts with a case for good health. Brey said Colson could come back for Notre Dame’s final home game on Feb. 28. He said Colson should start jogging this week. “Senior night against Pittsburgh is a possibility,” he said. “He wants to play bad. I want to be really smart about this. He seems to be trending where we’re going to get him back this year. It would be such a shot in the arm, and Senior Night would be fitting, his last home game. That’s a possibility. It’s Virginia for a little bit [on March 3] and Brooklyn for a lot [in the ACC tournament].”

Brey also said that the ACC tournament would be a realistic timetable for Harvey to return. Colson was averaging 21.4 and 10.4 rebounds per game before his injury. Harvey had showed flashes that he could turn into a high-end ACC freshman, as he scored 17 points against N.C. State.

For now, Brey says there’s a flickering hope that Notre Dame can thrust itself into the NCAA conversation.

“If we can get this to 8-10 or 9-9 [in conference play] and go to Brooklyn and have Bonzie back,” he said. “You look a little like you did in Maui and get two [in the ACC tournament], then you’re discussed.”

Boston College’s Ky Bowman (0) defends against Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Boston. (AP)
Boston College’s Ky Bowman (0) defends against Notre Dame’s Matt Farrell (5) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Boston. (AP)

What would that discussion sound like? CBS bracket expert Jerry Palm said that Notre Dame’s bubble case “certainly is a unique circumstance.” (Notre Dame wasn’t perfect with Colson, as they lost to Ball State and Indiana.)

Palm predicted Colson’s injury wouldn’t be a big talking point when evaluating whether the Irish would reach the NCAA tournament, as he said history dictates that injuries impact seeding more so than the conversation of whether a team deserves to the in the NCAA tournament. “Here’s the thing about injuries,” Palm said. “You have to put together a résumé worth selecting regardless of your roster. Injuries come into play when it comes to seedings.”

Farrell made sure that Notre Dame was a talking point amid the college basketball landscape on Saturday. He hit 3-pointers in transition and off kickouts. He set them up with step-backs and pull-ups. He hit them over man-to-man and zone. He hit them from the top of the key and deep wing.

If there was a way to hit a 3-point shot on Saturday, Farrell found it.

“It looked real big tonight,” he said of the hoop after shooting 8-for-8 in the first half.

Starting the game with nine consecutive 3-point shots came two shy of the NCAA record for consecutive 3-pointers set in 1987 by Niagara’s Gary Bossert. (Got to imagine Bossert’s texts were lighting up on Saturday as his three-decade-old record got dusted off in conversation). Farrell’s 10th attempt, from the deep left wing, caromed off the rim with 12:01 remaining in the game – his run at perfection ending.

But Notre Dame’s season still may be salvageable despite a seven-game losing streak that bled into February.

They’ve won three of the past four games, and Brey remains positive, squinting to see the bubble when others don’t. He is still painting a potential picture of the Irish positioning themselves for a unique NCAA tournament conversation. A team that once dreamed of the Final Four has reset their vision to the First Four.

“We’d love to go to Dayton!” Brey said, with an enthusiasm that the Dayton Chamber of Commerce should capture for promotional videos. “We’d love Dayton. We’ll get there early. We’ll bus there.

“Give me Dayton has been the theme around our team. Fellas, that’s our lot in life.”

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