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NEW YORK — Mike Brey knows how good his team is.
He also knows that his Notre Dame roster led by seniors like Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell don’t, at this point in their careers, need to be micro-managed. That’s why, with his team trailing a must-win game by 13 points at the half and 21 points early in the second, he gave the floor to them.
“They do the talking in the huddles,” Brey said. “I didn’t say much at halftime. ‘Y’all figure it out.’”
And figure it out they did.
The tenth-seeded Fighting Irish held No. 7 seed Virginia Tech to 1-for-16 shooting for a ten-minute stretch at the end of the second half, going on a 40-12 run that turned that 21-point deficit into a seven-point lead as the Irish landed a 71-65 win that gave them a shot to beat Duke on Thursday night and convince the selection committee that they deserve a bid to the NCAA tournament.
That’s where we are right now with this Notre Dame team.
When they are healthy, there isn’t anyone in the country that doesn’t think this group is good enough to get an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. But being good enough and being deserving of a spot in the big dance are two totally different things.
As it stands, after two ACC tournament wins, Notre Dame is 20-13 on the season and 8-10 in league play. They have two Quadrant 1 wins, a 7-10 mark against the top two Quadrants and three losses to Quadrant 3 teams. Their best win — Wichita State in the Maui Invitational — doesn’t outweigh the fact that they lost to Ball State at home, or to Indiana, or at Georgia Tech.
That is not a résumé worthy of an at-large bid this year, but simply looking at their schedule buries the lede: The Irish played without their All-American power forward for two months and without their All-ACC point guard for the better part of three weeks. Their record without Colson was 6-9. Their record without Colson and Farrell was 1-4. They didn’t win a game for a full month, but four of those seven losses came without their two best players on the floor; all seven of them were without Colson.
“I’ve never been a big guy to campaign,” Brey said. “I don’t want to hear about best 68. When I have my guys back we’re a top 20 team, and I think the committee knows that.”
He’s got a point.
Even with all the time that duo missed, Notre Dame is still a top 30 team according to KenPom. They’re 14-4 at full strength, and that includes their win over Wichita State.
The problem is that two of Notre Dame’s three Quadrant 3 losses — Ball State and Indiana — came with Colson and Farrell healthy, at 100 percent and playing poorly enough to fall to a pair of in-state rivals.
It’s a tough argument to make — ignore the bad parts of our résumé because we were without our two best players even though the worst parts of our résumé came with both of them — which is what makes Thursday night so important. The Irish will be facing off with No. 2 seed Duke. That would be a great win, particularly when it would come on a neutral court in a city that might as well be Duke’s second home.
That’s the kind of win that the Irish would need to be able to convince the committee that they are, in fact, deserving of a bid, and not just because their roster looks like it should be on paper.
And when the score was 47-26 with 14 minutes left, I’m not sure anyone actually thought we’d be at a point where that was a possibility on Thursday night.
“All the stuff they’ve been through,” Brey said, “they’re just tough dudes.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever been prouder of a group — and in a game that really mattered.”