Yet this year’s 25-9 Irish – who are seeded No. 5 in the NCAA Tournament West Region and will open against Princeton (23-6) at 12:15 p.m. Thursday in Buffalo – have exceeded outside expectations by ignoring them.
Seniors V.J. Beachem, of Fort Wayne, and Steve Vasturia have a chance to finish (along with fellow senior Austin Torres) with the most wins by any class in Notre Dame history. The record for a class is 97 total wins. Beachem, Vasturia and Torres have been a part of 96 wins, tied for second with three other classes.
Another trip to the Sweet 16 would push this senior class to the top of the class.
“When the lights have been brightest, we’ve been in a rhythm where we love it, we embrace it, we deliver,” coach Mike Brey said Sunday. “I think it’s gotten to be a little bit of the tradition of the program, where it’s handed down to the younger guys and they’re dragged along with the older guys. It’s kind of what we do: We deliver when the lights are brightest.”
This year’s Notre Dame has a number of great shooters, starting with Beachem and Vasturia, and when the shots are falling, it’s a difficult team to guard.
The shots weren’t falling so much in the loss to Duke, but that could have been the fatigue of a conference tourney.
“We had a bunch of great looks, and I think that’s just the way we’ve been playing all season long,” Vasturia said. “I’m confident that, going forward, people are going to continue to step up and make those shots. We were in the right position (against Duke), so you’ve just got to step up and knock them down.”
Notre Dame has won seven of its last nine games and is 8-8 against teams in the Top 50. But they have two recent wins over Florida State, including the ACC tourney semifinal, and the Seminoles earned a No. 3 seed.
They showed some tired legs in their poor shooting against Duke, but that energy should be back against Princeton.
They’ll need it.
Princeton relies heavily on the three-pointer, counting on the long-range shot for more than 40 percent of its scoring. The Tigers were undefeated regular-season Ivy League champs and won the conference tournament. Their careful and deliberate with their offense and commit few turnovers.
Princeton won’t beat itself.
But the same can be said of Notre Dame. The Irish possesses a high basketball IQ, and they also have a force of nature in Bonzie Colson. Colson is dealing with an ankle issue, but he’s too driven to let that keep him down. He’s averaging 17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
Colson scored 29 points with nine rebounds against Duke, a performance Brey ranked among the best in ACC tourney history.
“What he did willing us and keeping us in it and making plays and chasing down loose balls, it’s a great performance,” Brey said. “And he’s so confident. He’s a tough matchup now that he can step up and make jump shots.”
Notre Dame is a different team from a year ago, when Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste were leading the way. It’s different from two years ago with Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.
It’s different than the years when Brey hadn’t yet figured out what it takes to succeed during March Madness and his players reflected that.
“We’re not playing with the weight of the world on our shoulders,” Brey said. “Some of my earlier years here I was really uptight. You know it’s one-and-done and I don’t think I helped my team sometimes. I had them uptight. Now we smile and laugh and keep them loose. We know they’re going to go out and play hard.”
Both of the last two teams hit their peak in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Elite Eight. The third time could be just as charming for the Irish.