Irish make strong case for a No. 1 seed

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey has given it some thought, but has yet to mention it to his players.

Why shouldn’t his team get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament? The Irish don’t necessarily pass the look test, but it would be difficult to deny them if they are still playing next Saturday night in the Big East tournament.

I’m going to let their resume speak for itself.

There are the conference road wins – against Pittsburgh in a place where virtually no one beats the Panthers, and against UConn Saturday afternoon on the Huskies’ Senior Day.

There are the wins against Top 25 teams in South Bend: Louisville, St. John’s, UConn and Villanova.

And let’s not forget: There’s the Old Spice championship back in late-November in which Brey’s team knocked off Wisconsin and Georgia on a neutral court.

Sure, there are a handful of losses, but a pair – on the road against St. John’s and Marquette – came without underrated starter Carleton Scott.

“I think about it some,” Brey admitted after his team pulled out an improbable 70-67 win over UConn Saturday. “It’s not a pipe dream.”

The last time Notre Dame pulled a No. 1 seed? Back in 1979 — before the field expanded to 64 teams.

In 1986, a Digger Phelps-coached Notre Dame team was a No. 3 seed and was knocked out in the first round by Arkansas-Little Rock.

This Irish team is hardly intimidating, but it finds ways to win. All five starters are seniors. They can all make shots, and they share the basketball.

“I know people look at us and don’t take us seriously because we’re white,” said one of the seniors, Ben Hansbrough.

But people should realize the Irish are for real now. Especially after Notre Dame beat UConn with Hansbrough – the front-runner for Big East Player of the Year – on the bench for the final 8:24. Brey put his fiery leader back in the game with four fouls at the 8:34 mark. Ten seconds later, Hansbrough’s day was done – and it appeared that Notre Dame’s was as well.

“We both take responsibility for that,” Brey joked of Hansbrough’s fifth foul. “But he’s taking more.”

“That’s a 1950s way of thinking, not to put him in with four fouls,” Brey added. “He’s a 23-year-old, fifth-year senior, I put him in an offensive possession and he should have been better. I told him before he went in and reminded him again.”

But Hansbrough was gone, and Notre Dame’s 60-52 lead quickly evaporated. Within four minutes it had turned into a five-point UConn advantage.

But the Irish weren’t done. Brey decided to get the ball inside to undersized post player Tyrone Nash, who scored eight of his team’s final 10 points to pull out the road win.

“They showed they can win without Hansbrough,” said shellshocked UConn star Kemba Walker following the loss.

“They can shoot, they’re a smart team and they made all the right passes,” he added. “They’re a really good team.”

Team being the operative word. While UConn has been so reliant on Walker (he had 34 of his team’s 67 points Saturday) and BYU is all about The Jimmer, the Irish are all about the sum of their parts.

That’s why taking a guy like Scott – who averages 11.3 points per game out of Brey’s seven-man rotation — is so important.

Notre Dame finishes the regular season with 14 victories in the toughest league in America. The Irish will draw the No. 2 seed, behind Pittsburgh, in next week’s Big East tourney, and certainly have some work to do in order to get to championship game.

But Brey – who deserves strong consideration for National Coach of the Year honors – is quietly hoping that his unintimidating group might do something the Irish have never done before.

“We’ve gotten to the semis,” Brey said. “But we’ve never gotten to Saturday night.”

“I’m so proud of our guys,” he added. “We’ve put on a chase for the last five weeks and to come here and keep coming … it’s good momentum.”

BYU got whacked Wednesday in its first game without Brandon Davies and Purdue dropped one on the road to Iowa on Saturday. That’s opened the door for a team that most figured would be on the Bubble right now to secure a No. 1 seed.

“We’re not thinking about it,” Hansbrough said of the potential No. 1 seed. “We don’t need to worry about it. Right now we’re just focusing on the Big East tournament.”

With a No. 1 seed within their grasp.