Everything falling in line for Notre Dame

March, 10, 2011
3/10/11
10:37
PM ET
Notre Dame's benchAP Photo/Frank Franklin IIScott Martin (left), Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough are used to being overlooked, but with the Irish advancing to the semifinals, expectations may be on the rise for Notre Dame.
NEW YORK -- The irony is fairly delicious.

Ben Hansbrough won Big East player of the year honors, beating out Kemba Walker for the hardware.

Yet right now, the most valuable player for the Irish is Walker.

It was his errant pass in the waning seconds in Connecticut on Saturday that preserved Notre Dame’s 70-67 victory and it was Walker’s game-winning, step-back jumper that eliminated top-seed Pittsburgh from the Big East tournament. All of which paved the way for the Irish to state their case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Of course, it is one thing to have the road paved for you.

It is another to drive like you’re on the autobahn.

Stepping into the spotlight vacated by the Panthers’ early departure, Notre Dame didn’t blink. It ran roughshod over Cincinnati 89-51.

[+] EnlargeMike Brey and Carleton Scott
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIMike Brey's Fighting Irish are seeking the school's first Big East title.
When asked if his team deserved to be in the No. 1 seed conversation, head coach Mike Brey didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely we do,’’ he said. “I haven’t talked to them about that much because we talked about going here and getting our program to Saturday night. But strong résumé for it? Absolutely.’’

Brey’s refreshing candor is rare for coaches who typically prefer to believe their players live in some sort of informational vacuum.

But Brey recognized early he doesn’t have a typical team. His players are older -- four veterans and a wily transfer in Scott Martin -- and are not easily overwhelmed. At the beginning of the season, when the Irish went to Orlando for the Old Spice Classic, he thought about telling them that if they came away 2-1 it would be a good trip.

He didn’t and quickly realized what a mistake it would have been if he had.

“They would have been pissed at me,’’ he said of the eventual 3-0 weekend. “This team has been about the next challenge.’’

The Fighting Irish are a unique blend. Experienced, yes, but more accustomed to being underappreciated than overhyped.

In some ways it has worked against them.

The Irish long ago proved they were not impostors. They have lost five games this season, all to NCAA teams, and boast a 11-4 record against teams in the RPI top 50.

Among the top-15 teams, only Florida has played more top-caliber opponents but the Gators played seven of those against teams ranked between 25 and 50. Notre Dame faced 11 in the top 25 alone.

Yet somehow the notion that Notre Dame could be a top seed still seems implausible, as though this team remains a smoke-and-mirrors group of overachievers.

At what point does overachieving simply become achieving?

“I think we still surprise people,’’ Hansbrough said. “It’s like, ‘Wait, they weren’t in the top 40 preseason, were they? What are they doing here? Huh? Wow.’ But we like that. We feel like we’ve earned it.’’

And that is the flip side to the indifference, if not altogether disrespect.

The low expectations, the almost look-down-the-nose disdain that still resides in many camps has fueled Notre Dame.

These are, as Brey pointed out, former blue squadders, guys who bide their time as backups before stepping into the starring role. They are used to being overlooked, yet extremely comfortable in their own skin and even more confident in their abilities.

That quirky combination has allowed Brey to trust them more than any team he’s had before. It has also allowed him to thrust them directly into the line of fire without worrying that they’ll flinch.

When his team came to New York, trying to win its first Big East title (the Irish have never gotten beyond the semifinals), and with it take perhaps the residual glory of a No. 1 seed, Brey didn’t hesitate to boldly challenge them to live up to their expectations.

Rather than fear the pressure, he told them to embrace the moment, to smile.

He took them to Broadway to see Jersey Boys, not because he thought they’d like the music. He wanted them to appreciate artists at work, working together to create a masterpiece much like he believes his team has done all season.

“I think they’re glad that people don’t think that they’re very good still,’’ Brey said. “I think they like that. They’ve really used it to their benefit. Although I’m pretty certain we’re not hiding any more.’’

Dana O'Neil | email

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