Why Notre Dame should make Big Dance despite ACC tourney exit

NEW YORK – Shortly after Notre Dame’s loss to Duke in the ACC tournament, senior Austin Torres sat in the back of the Irish locker room, eyes locked on his iPhone screen. As he scrolled through the scores, Torres rattled off thoughts only bubble teams and amateur bracketologists would think:

“Man, ‘Bama’s win was huge.”

“USC is going to beat Oregon State.”

“Utah and Oregon is a big game for Utah.”

“I can’t believe Providence ended up winning in overtime.”

Despite falling to Duke, Notre Dame should make the NCAA tournament because its two stars are back, healthy and playing at a high level. With Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell at the helm, Notre Dame looks and feels like a tournament team, despite numbers that could suggest otherwise.

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With seniors Matt Farrell (left) and Bonzie Colson (right) healthy, Notre Dame has a legitimate case for making the NCAA tournament. (Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

A low RPI (65), lack of quadrant one wins (2-9) and a bevy of bad losses don’t look great. But on the other hand, a decent strength of schedule (24), high KenPom rating (30) and a healthy duo of Colson and Farrell should be enough to push the Irish from on the bubble to into the tournament.

“We’ve got to be the most confusing [team on the bubble] and the one that will be discussed the most with how many games a first-team All-American missed,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “I love the fact that we’re in front of [the selection committee] and we’re being discussed. That’s all we can ask.”

[Why Notre Dame will be the toughest bubble team for the committee to evaluate]

Notre Dame looked great to start the season, but fell off a cliff after both Colson and Farrell went down with injuries midway through the season. The Irish went 6-9 during a 15-game stretch without Colson – including seven consecutive loses – dropped to 3-6 in ACC play and looked like a lost team.

After the Irish lost to Duke on Jan. 29, Brey wanted a clean slate. So he gathered the team, gave everyone a copy of the game stats from those first nine conference games and subsequently ripped them to shreds and threw them all out. Note Dame finished the regular season 5-4 with wins against Florida State and Boston College and a close loss to Virginia. Certainly not resume-defining moments, but positive moments nonetheless that pushed the Irish back into the bubble conversation.

“When you lose seven in a row and you’re under .500, you’re talking and dreaming about making a run to get to the bubble, which I’m very proud that we did,” Brey said. “We have emptied the tank, and we’ll see what our fate is down the road. Whatever it is, we’ll be accepting and proud.”

If you’re looking for an eye-test reason to include the Irish in the Big Dance, look no further than their win over Virginia Tech on Wednesday in the ACC tournament. Down 21 at one point, a combination of Colson, Farrell and lockdown defense propelled Notre Dame to not only an upset win, but a quality win as well.

That was the team Notre Dame was supposed to be all season: Colson down low and Farrell up top. But injuries held the Irish back, and now their postseason destination is entirely up to the committee.

When asked if he thought Notre Dame was a tournament team following the Virginia Tech game, Brey acknowledged the concerns of the committee before stumping for his team.

“When I have my guys back, we’re a top-20 team,” Brey said Wednesday night, “and I think the committee know that. I feel strongly we should be a part of that.”

A win over Duke would have sealed a bid for Notre Dame, but a combination of Grayson Allen and Marvin Bagley III was too much for the Irish, who lost 88-70. The Irish actually hung around with a the well-rested Blue Devils for 28 minutes, but the fatigue of playing three games in three days finally set in late in the game, and the younger Duke squad rolled to the win.

“We had three games in three days. I don’t think any team on the bubble has had to do that,” senior Austin Torres said. “Playing a fresh Duke team isn’t easy. We’re playing our fourth game in six days and fifth game in eight days.”

After the game, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was the first to campaign for that the Irish as a tournament team.

“I hope they get in, because I think they can beat anybody,” Krzyzewski said. “Mike has that team together the whole year? Forget about it. I’m telling you, if they get in, they’ll be – they’re going to beat people, and they’ll have a chance. I don’t know how the bubble works and that, but they’re very good.”

How much will the committee weigh Notre Dame’s raw numbers versus how the team has played with a healthy squad? Only time will tell. But for now, the Irish should be in, based on their sheer ability to hang with the best teams in the nation.

“We think we gave the committee a heck of a run of what we can do,” Colson said. “We think it’s something we deserve, and the ups and downs with what we’ve gone through. We gave it our all, and I think we deserve to be there. We’ll see Sunday.”

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