WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Mike Brey has never been one to mince words. Given the chance to answer a question with brutal honesty or tempered care, he will always go for brutal.
So when asked -- delicately -- to describe how he believes his team is perceived, the Notre Dame coach chuckled almost to himself and then delivered his unvarnished opinion.
“We’ll always be the stepchild," Brey said. “We’re the stepchild on our campus, with football. We were the stepchild in the Big East, and certainly in this league we’re the stepchild again."
This, of course, is the month of the stepchild insurrection, when underappreciated teams place the heel of their glass-slippered feet on the derriere of the favored offspring and rather unkindly shove them aside.
Which would make Notre Dame’s spot in the ACC tournament semifinal seemingly an ideal storyline.
If only it were accurate.
The truth is, the only thing little and plucky about the Irish is their mascot.
Notre Dame has missed the NCAA tournament all of two times in the past nine years. The Irish were a few free throws away from upsetting Kentucky and reaching the Final Four a year ago and are annual players on the national stage.
Yet, Notre Dame’s 84-79 overtime win against Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals on Thursday will go down as an upset (even though the Irish were the higher seed). And should the Irish topple North Carolina in Friday’s semifinal, it will go down as a stunning blueblood sweep.
Even though that’s exactly what ND did a year ago.
That’s right, this could be a repeat.
Last season, Notre Dame took out Duke in the semifinals and North Carolina in the championship game, performing a Tobacco Road exorcism in just its second year in the ACC that most league members are still waiting to accomplish.
“We kind of talked about how this has a familiar feel," Brey said. “These guys won that championship and they’re thinking, ‘Hey, let’s do it again.’ It’s hard to win this tournament. It’s hard to win this tournament two years in a row, but they don’t know that, so I’m not telling them. They don’t look at the odds. They just say, ‘Hey let’s do it.’
The ignorance is borne out of an odd combination of inexperience and experience. The Irish are new to this ACC thing, and that’s a large part of why they aren’t taken seriously enough. Same as it was in the Big East, Notre Dame is a conference carpetbagger, opportunely joining into an established league late so it comes off as little more than interlopers crashing the establishment.
It was true in the Big East, which Notre Dame joined in 1995, a full decade after the glory years of Rollie, Big John and Looie.
And now it’s true in the ACC.
Yet, within the confines of their own roster, the Irish are wildly experienced. They are far from wide-eyed innocents, but instead seasoned and not easily rattled veterans. The Irish are constructed on the retro philosophy of building a program with four-year players rather than swapping out freshmen. Notre Dame’s academic standards make it a necessity, but Brey doesn’t mind. It’s how he’s wired by now.
Consequently, this Notre Dame team starts two seniors and three juniors, guys who stared down the grim reality of a 16-point deficit to a well-oiled offensive machine like Duke and effectively shrugged their shoulders.
Brey was so confident in his players that he admonished his own staff to ‘shut up’ and instead of overcoaching, let the players figure it out for themselves.
Which, of course, they did.
“We just got in the huddle and talked about what we needed to do," Demetrius Jackson said. “We’ve been in that position before. We respect each other. It doesn’t matter who is talking in the huddle, a senior, a starter, a guy on the bench. We trust each other."
And they don’t give a fig what people think of their program. They know that they’ll be viewed as the big underdogs against Carolina in the semifinals.
But they also know that’s what folks thought of them a year ago, too.
“Hey, you can treat us like a stepchild," Brey said, “but we’re going to deliver like a golden child."