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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
There is a scene in The Last of the Mohicans when one of the Native Americans fighting against the English kills a rival, reaches into his chest and pulls out his still-beating heart. It's a graphic image, one born of war's dehumanization of its participants.
And it's how Notre Dame coach Mike Brey must have felt last February, when his team suffered its fifth crushing defeat in a row.
During the 15-day stretch, the Irish had dropped a pair of overtime games, one a double-OT affair, and succumbed in the other three games by a combined five points. By the time the team slunk home after the finale, an 89-86 loss to Louisville, it's a wonder the players could even think about heading to practice the next day. Notre Dame was 1-8 in Big East play, and preseason hopes of an NIT or NCAA Tournament berth were pushed away by the grim reality that the Irish might not even qualify for a place in the 16-team Big East's 12-team postseason confab in New York.
Somehow, Notre Dame rallied. It won three in a row and five of its last seven to sneak into a tie for 11th and earn a trip to the Garden. Though the Irish dropped another tight one -- 67-63 -- to eventual Sweet 16 qualifier Georgetown, they received an NIT invite and made it to the second round. It wasn't quite the Final Four, but for a team that looked so forlorn and ready for the morgue, it was quite a comeback. The challenge now is clear: Notre Dame learned last year how to lose close games; now it must figure out how to win them.
"I think the guys were hardened by what happened last year," Brey said. "They played hard but had their hearts taken out of them. They have to develop an edge this year. They have to be a little nastier after coming so close but not getting it done."
How close? The Irish dropped a 72-70 home decision to Villanova when Wildcats guard Kyle Lowry scored on a last-second tip-in, and lost at Connecticut, 75-74, when Huskies guard Marcus Williams scored after snaring an offensive rebound.
Nasty stuff. But learning experiences, too. Notre Dame enters this season trying to regain its legs after winning fewer games than the previous season three years in a row. Brey understands the need to improve and thinks his team is ready to make a move.
"I feel good about the character of the guys here," he said. "We were 1-8 after losing to Louisville but hung in there."