Late Sunday night, Notre Dame basketball’s dream season came to a screeching halt. Less than 100 miles from South Bend, the Florida State Seminoles smothered what was normally a well-oiled, high-octane attack and put the kibosh on any fairy tale runs the Irish Faithful had hoped to witness.
It was a surprising loss, but at the same time not really. The Seminoles were a long, deep, and extremely athletic club that played stifling defense. That’s the perfect recipe to knock off Notre Dame, who at its heart is a thin squad with limited athleticism. The majority of Irish fans had been waiting for the shoe to drop on this team since mid-January, but perhaps the boys’ blistering finish to the regular season had made people drop their guards if only for the first weekend of the tournament.
Unfortunately, as is often the case with Notre Dame football and basketball, dropping your guard is not a smart thing to do.
After sputtering at the beginning of January, the Irish began a methodical rise in the polls. Four ranked teams—including #2 Pitt—were among the victims of a 13-1 finish to the regular season. The boys won in every which way—whether it was a dazzling display of offensive firepower or a drag-out, defensive slugfest.
Unlike previous Irish outfits, this squad seemed to be able to adapt to whatever the situation called for and never miss a beat. Anchored by five seniors that played an incredibly smart brand of basketball, Notre Dame passed just about every test that came their way.
While every one of the seven players in Brey’s rotation played key roles in making things run smoothly, there was one guy who made the Irish go: Ben Hansbrough. From the opening tip against Georgia Southern in November until his final foul against UConn in March, Hansbrough was a once-in-a-generation competitor whose effort spurred the Irish to unseen heights.
On offense he was not only a sniper from three-point range, but also a sneakily effective player off the dribble who mastered the art of reading a defender’s hedge on a pick. If the defender hung back he fired a shot off. If the defender hedged effectively, Ben would often run right into his hip and draw a foul. If the defender overplayed the hedge, Ben had a lightning quick behind the back move that split the defense and got him into the lane with a full head of steam. His dissection of the defense in this simple play highlighted just how incredible his basketball IQ really was.
Defense was where he made his presence felt the most though. While he was rarely as athletic as his defensive assignment, Hansbrough never backed away from the challenge of guarding elite players like Kemba Walker. What he lacked in quickness he compensated for with sheer relentlessness and limitless energy. His effort rubbed off on the rest of the team and suddenly a perennially horrendous defense morphed into a reliable and consistent one.
The team fed off not only his effort, but also his cockiness and swagger. This group genuinely believed they could win every game because every time they looked to Ben he wasn’t backing down whether the Irish were playing in Purcell Pavilion, The Petersen Events Center, or Freedom Hall. Ty Nash had sound bites like, “we expect to win every game” and their head coach—usually the first person to try to temper expectations—was embracing the chase for a #1 seed in March.
Week after week the wins piled up, capped with a thrilling triumph at UConn to wrap up the regular season. For the first time since the glory days of Digger Phelps, the Irish found themselves ranked in the top five of both polls.
This couldn’t possibly be right, could it? Could Notre Dame legitimately be one of the best teams in the country and in the hunt not only for a tournament berth, but a Final Four berth? We all started to buy in that even if it wasn’t likely, it certainly wasn’t a far-fetched scenario.
But then something happened March 8th in New York at the Big East Tournament that I believe changed everything: Ben Hansbrough won Player of the Year.
His first game you couldn’t tell a major difference in his demeanor (mainly because the entire Irish team was on fire and Cincinnati was busy rolling over), but against Louisville it became very apparent something changed. He struggled to a 3 of 16 shooting night—far and away his worst shooting night of the year—as Notre Dame blew a big lead and lost in overtime to Louisville. Alarm bells began sounding in my head.
It wasn’t so much the off night of shooting because that happens to everyone, even great shooters. Something about him just looked off, almost as if he hadn’t slept the night before the game. In a word he was lethargic, which was startling since I was convinced he had an endless well of energy. In the first half it didn’t matter because once again his team came out like gangbusters and shot the lights out, but in the second half as the Cardinals closed in the team looked to their leader and he just didn’t have it. Even on the rare occasion he didn’t shoot well during the season he always was able to amp up the team with his energy. Not on that night though.
The result was the Irish crumbled. They couldn’t muster the defensive stops they’d become accustomed to getting over the course of the year and their offense sputtered under Louisville’s pressure. When Notre Dame had the ball on the final possession of regulation, Hansbrough forced up an off-balanced three pointer as opposed to attacking the defense like he normally would. It was a disappointing loss, but in the grand scheme of things not devastating.
His body language suggested that something was wrong, but I couldn’t really pinpoint it. Maybe he was sick, maybe he had a bad night’s sleep, or maybe it was something was weighing on his mind at home—it could’ve been anything. All I know is that he looked different and I hoped that when he arrived in Chicago he’d be well rested and the same Ben he’d been the rest of the year.
The Irish drew Akron in round one and as that game dragged on my observation was the same: something was just off with Ben. His calm, confident swagger that the team fed off had been replaced by a short fuse. It was as if the sudden burden of enormous expectations had overwhelmed him.
Notre Dame squeezed by Akron in an ugly affair and readied itself for Florida State. All I wanted was some early sign that the Ben from two weeks earlier was back. It never came.
In both of Notre Dame’s games in the NCAA tournament he snapped more at teammates, pleaded more with officials, and fired more off-balanced, almost hesitant shots than probably the rest of the year combined. The team seemed frazzled and tight from the get-go and the fact that their keystone was so wound up just exacerbated the problem.
When the Irish went to halftime down 11 I was worried, but still confident we could turn things around. Florida State had played their best half of the entire season and Notre Dame played one of their worst and ND was just 11 points behind. All it would take was a spark.
Then Mike Brey was interviewed coming out of the half and I knew we were in deep trouble.
Brey looked like he was staring a timebomb in the face with no idea how to disarm it. As he muttered about how he was happy to just be down 11 because it felt like 20, it became apparent he was at a complete loss for what was going on with his team. The group of five seniors that was supposed to kill teams with poise and experience was playing like a group of beleaguered underclassmen. Hansbrough, who Brey called “the straw that stirs the drink,” was completely out of sorts both physically and mentally.
We all know what happened next. The final margin was 14 points, but in reality the game wasn’t that close. It was truly painful to watch and the message board vultures immediately swept in to unload on Brey.
They knew it was a fraud all along. Once again lack of depth killed Notre Dame. Once again they fell short of expectations. Once again a poor shooting effort came at the worst possible time. They’re all signs that Brey is still a crappy coach and deserves to be canned.
People are idiots.
Listen, looking back on the season you can’t deem it a great success because Notre Dame once again failed to advance past the first weekend of the tournament. It doesn’t belittle the achievements of the regular season—which were great—but it casts a serious pall over how this year will be viewed in the annals.
Mike Brey shoulders plenty of blame for the Florida State loss because he failed to push the right buttons to refocus and calm down his team. His long-term prospects shouldn't, can’t, and won’t be determined by this single game though. What he does next year will tell us a lot about whether Brey really changed this year or if it was a fluke.
Does the team’s commitment to good defense depart with Hansbrough or will Brey continue to stress it? Will he set the bar high and strive to get back to the heights of this February or immediately try to temper expectations going into next season? Will the influx of talent on its way to South Bend mean he’s about to deepen his rotation a little bit? These are the major questions that will show whether he’s truly adapted and if he continues to adapt. None can be answered right now.
In the meantime we can only reflect on the season that was. I loved watching this team play. Ben Hansbrough became one of my all-time favorite players for all the reasons I’d stated earlier—he almost single-handedly molded the character and ratcheted up the expectations of effort for the entire team. I want to look back on this season fondly and first and foremost remember the team for its exhilarating run through the toughest conference in America. The problem is I won’t, because I can’t.
The wins over Pitt, Wisconsin, Villanova, and UConn are forever relegated to footnote status, the loss to Florida State elevated to bold font in the headline. The enduring lesson smacks both the fans and players in the face: all the great things achieved in the regular season can be washed away in the blink of an eye by wasting an opportunity to do something truly great in March.