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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
The Observer

Irish miss out on NCAA tournament, will play Hampton in NIT

A month ago, Mike Brey said if his team squinted, it could see the bubble.

Two weeks ago, Brey said he could see the bubble without squinting.

But while Notre Dame could see the bubble, hear the bubble and maybe even smell the bubble, the Irish couldn’t quite grab a spot in the NCAA tournament’s field of 68 teams, as the NCAA selection committee relegated Notre Dame to the NIT on Sunday.

Sarah Olson | The Observer
Irish senior forward Bonzie Colson shoots a jump shot during Notre Dame's 73-56 win over Pittsburgh on Wednesday at Purcell Pavilion.

“I am absolutely thrilled that we played our way into the field, given where we were in January and early February. I’m heartbroken, but it wasn’t unexpected once I saw Davidson win today,” Brey said Sunday. “After a season of gut punches, that was another gut punch today. I have prepared them for the NIT the last month, [so] we’ve been very realistic about how this could go.

“I’m kind of proud of them and hurting for them at the same time.”

The Irish were so close, in fact, that selection committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen said on the selection show that Notre Dame was the first team out and would have made the Big Dance had Rhode Island not lost to Davidson earlier on Sunday.

“It’s kind of a fitting end to how our season went,” Brey said. “We’ve had all kinds of heartbreaking things happen, and on the most important day, it was a heartbreaking day.”

The Irish made a late push to get into the tournament field, fueled mainly by the return of senior forward Bonzie Colson, who had missed 15 games during conference play due to a fractured left foot. With Colson, the Irish beat Pittsburgh on Senior Night and took the No. 1-overall seed Virginia down to the wire on the road before escaping with two wins in the ACC tournament in Brooklyn over Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.

But it wasn’t enough.

“Notre Dame was a unique situation from the standpoint that they had a couple kids that they played without for part of the year,” Rasmussen said Sunday. “They just didn’t have enough on their resume to be in as an at-large. … Even with Bonzie.”

An 18-point loss to Duke in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament didn’t do much for Notre Dame, and the Irish got next-to-no help from the other bubble teams during conference championship week.

“I do know we were very fairly and very thoroughly analyzed,” Brey said. “I have to believe the committee was tired of looking at our stuff.”

Syracuse, Louisville, Oklahoma State, Texas, Alabama, USC and UCLA — all considered bubble teams heading into postseason play — all won at least one game in their conference tournaments. To make matters worse, Rhode Island lost in the A-10 tournament championship, which gave an automatic bid to a Davidson team that was not otherwise being considered and made one less at-large bid available, which Rhode Island received.

Of that group, Alabama, Texas, Syracuse and UCLA made the field of 68 — with the latter two programs, Saint Bonaventure and Arizona State composing the tournament’s “Last Four In.”

“Obviously, it sucks,” senior guard Matt Farrell said. “It’s tough, but we sat in the locker room and talked about the NIT, and this group hasn’t really played together a lot and we enjoy being around each other.

“We have a championship ahead of us, and we could win and we can play together, keep putting the uniform on.”

Now, the Irish will look ahead to playing in the NIT. First up is a matchup against on against No. 8-seed Hampton on Tuesday at 9 p.m. Should the Irish beat the Pirates (19-15, 12-4 MEAC), they will take on the winner of No. 4-seed Penn State and No. 5-seed Temple, though the time of the second-round game is not yet decided.

When asked about how the team will turn around mentally, Brey said that task falls to the players, specifically the seniors.

“We held a team meeting and discussed where we wanted to take the future of this team,” senior forward Martinas Geben said. “Bonzie and I expressed a really strong interest in continuing to play and competing. I think neither one of us are very happy with how things ended in Brooklyn. The NIT was never the goal — nobody wants to play in it — but since we’re in it, we’re going to try and make the most out of it and win the whole thing.”

Brey said he told the team about past experiences from the NIT.

“I told them I had two teams that handled it differently,” Brey said. “I had a team that was really devastated it didn’t get in [in 2005] and they lost to Holy Cross here. They really weren’t interested, it was really a tough end to a season. … And then I used Ryan Ayers’ team [in 2009] as an example. They lost seven in a row, like this group, and got all the way back to New York. Lost in the semis but made the most of the NIT. I’m hoping this group will be a little bit more like Ayers’ group.”

Notre Dame has never won the NIT tournament, but it has reached the finals four times (1973, 1984, 1992 and 2000) in 11 previous appearances. Notre Dame’s most recent appearance in the NIT was in the 2008-2009 season, when the Irish lost to Penn State in the tournament’s semifinal round.