Even with Bonzie Colson healthy, the Irish were a tough sell as a tournament team.
There are plenty of people responsible for Notre Dame’s drop from a top five program in November to NIT participant.
There’s Bonzie Colson, the player of the year candidate whose shoulder injury preceded a 31-day losing streak. There’s Matt Farrell, the explosive point guard who led the team in Colson’s absence, but whose 3-15 shooting performance wiped out what would have been an at-large bid clinching upset win over Virginia late in the season. There’s Mike Brey, the head coach who struggled to find his team’s identity in a stacked Atlantic Coast Conference.
And, as of 4 p.m. Sunday afternoon, Notre Dame could also blame University of Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley.
Hurley’s Rams played a sloppy contest in the Atlantic 10 title game, ceding the conference title — and its automatic NCAA Tournament bid — to Davidson College. The Wildcats weren’t even in consideration for an at-large invitation, and their moment of net-cutting glory came at the Fighting Irish’s expense. Davidson’s bid-thievery pushed Notre Dame from “last team in” to “first team out” on the NCAA Selection Committee’s bracket.
The abject crappiness of the switch wasn’t lost on Farrell.
“Sometimes, life sucks,” Farrell told the Indianapolis Star Sunday. “It is what it is. But we’re not gonna sit and sulk about it. We have an opportunity to keep playing at a great university.”
But Davidson’s rise to A-10 champion was just the final stressor on a tournament application criss-crossed with fragile cracks. It took a perfect storm of garbage to derail a season that began with Final Four aspirations.
So how did Notre Dame come so close to the NCAA Tournament despite a 14-loss season?
The middle of the Irish’s 2017-18 season was a quagmire. Losing Colson cost Notre Dame its best player — the kind of singular talent who can swing games on his own. The program went 14-5 with its double-double machine in the lineup but just 6-9 without him. While that latter record came in the throes of a brutal ACC schedule, his absence left a crater in the middle of the program’s regular season resume.
A limited degree of difficulty in the team’s non-conference schedule didn’t help. Notre Dame only played two opponents outside the ACC who qualified for this year’s NCAA Tournament, splitting with Wichita State (win) and Michigan State (loss). Playing in a stacked conference was supposed to be a balancing counterweight for that — but losing Colson ensured the best the team could do was wins over the league’s second-tier standouts like NC State, Florida State, and Virginia Tech.
From Sunday, January 7 to Monday, February 5, the Irish didn’t win a single game. They lost to top 25 programs (Duke, Virginia, UNC), teams firmly in the at-large race (NC State, Virginia Tech), and, uh, 13-19 Georgia Tech. A quick departure from the conference tournament (beating Pitt in 2018 doesn’t count), combined with the team’s RPI of 69 pushed it to the periphery of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
But the bracket isn’t decided by cold hard numbers. The Selection Committee was more than willing to accept Colson’s absence as the motivation behind Notre Dame’s swoon. A 3-2 record in his return — which included two victories over the hapless Panthers but also a win over the Hokies and the aforementioned near-upset of No. 1 Virginia — was enough to prove the team had recovered enough to make some noise at the big dance.
Then URI failed to make a basket in the final 3:43 of the A-10 title game Sunday, and suddenly there was no room at the inn for the Irish.
“Notre Dame was knocked out by the Davidson win,” Committee chairman Bruce Rasmussen told the nation on TBS following the selection show. While Colson’s return was enough to put the team in position to get its heart broken, his team ultimately “didn’t have enough on their résumé to get in as an at-large, even with Bonzie.”
Does Notre Dame have a legitimate gripe with the Selection Committee?
Kinda, but mostly no. The Irish didn’t have the resume of a tournament invitee, but the mitigating factor of Colson’s absence was bound to make the 2017-18 team a case study for future bubble watch thinkpieces. Notre Dame had just two quadrant 1 wins (victories over RPI top 30 teams at home, top 50 teams on a neutral court, or top 75 teams on the road) but nine of their 14 losses came against that competition. The team played top competition once the calendar flipped to 2018, but came up short time after time.
They weren’t the only team to fall from lofty heights to wind up on the bubble. Like Notre Dame, both Arizona State and Oklahoma went from top five rankings to sweat out their at-large bids on Selection Sunday. However, both the Sun Devils and Sooners could point to high profile victories to pad their resumes; ASU beat Xavier and Kansas by double-digits and added early wins over San Diego State and Kansas State before spiraling out in Pac-12 play. Oklahoma could hang its hat on wins over Wichita State, Texas Tech, and Kansas.
Ultimately, Notre Dame’s wins against Wichita State and NC State couldn’t compare.
If anything, their bigger beef should be with the committee’s decision to invite a conference rival to the bracket. For the second time in three seasons, Syracuse defied the odds to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Orange went 20-13 this season and matched the Irish’s 8-10 record in conference play without the built-in excuse of losing a first-team All-American.
Syracuse’s good wins (at Miami, vs. Clemson, vs. Virginia Tech) are slightly better than Notre Dame’s. Their bad losses (at Georgia Tech, at Boston College, at Wake Forest) are a little worse. It’s clear the committee puet the emphasis on the former rather than the latter — even if it was a major surprise to most bracket prognosticators out there. According to Bracket Matrix, only 20 of the nation’s 150 top bracketologists included the Orange in their final field of 68. That’s still more consideration than Notre Dame got; only seven decided to include the Irish.
So what now for Bonzie Colson and Mike Brey?
Notre Dame entered the month of December looking like a Final Four team. Fewer than four months later, the Irish will have to settle for the NIT and a disappointing sendoff for Colson — a finish for which Brey had been bracing his team.
“After a season of gut punches, that was again another gut punch [Sunday],” he said. “But I have prepared them for the NIT over the last month. We were very realistic about where this could go given where we were in our resume and the whole bit. So you know, the kids are amazingly resilient.”
But in the end, it wasn’t any one thing that kept Notre Dame out of the NCAA Tournament. It was the combination of a lack of quality non-conference wins, the awful luck of losing a star player at the worst possible time, and the surprising emergence of a Davidson team that went 8-6 in its non-conference schedule that relegated the Irish to college basketball’s second-most prestigious year-end bracket.