Notre Dame wants to keep great season going with deep run

PITTSBURGH (AP) `Tis the season for the NCAA Tournament. All is merry and bright for the 68 teams that earned a chance to pull off an upset or go all the way to the Final Four.

For the ones that failed to crack the field?

''When you miss selection Sunday,'' Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said, ''it's like missing Christmas.''

The Fighting Irish felt plenty of bah humbug over a miserable 17-loss 2013-14 season that included a 12-point loss in their lone ACC Tournament game kept them out of the Tournament for the first time since 2009.

Notre Dame didn't miss Christmas this season. The Irish may as well have walked out and found an expensive Ferrari wrapped in a bow in their driveway.

The Irish's 29 wins are easily the most under Brey since he was hired in 2000. And they highlighted the marvelous turnaround by winning the ACC Tournament championship.

Notre Dame returned to the NCAA Tournament trying to avoid what has become a rite of March under Brey - the early exit. For all the national rankings, milestone wins and Big East and ACC successes under Brey, the Irish have yet to figure out how to thrive in the NCAA Tournament. Brey has led Notre Dame to just one Sweet 16 and has lost the first tournament game four times.

The third-seeded Irish (29-5) are expected to at least make the Sweet 16 - and maybe more - in this year's tournament. They open Thursday against Colonial Athletic Association champion Northeastern (23-11).

Brey has led the Irish to 11 20-win seasons and NCAA Tournaments. The 2011 national coach of the year, Brey knows his team's reputation has taken a hit with March failures. But this year's team could be the one that erases the old, bad habits.

''I don't lose a lot of sleep on it, maybe because I'm an older coach now and I have a great contract,'' Brey said. ''But I do feel, going in, this group has the makings of being different because of how they played the regular season.''

Notre Dame's wildly successful 2014-15 season could actually be traced to the remains of last year. Brey asked assistant coach Rod Balanis to make list of the top 15 returning players in the ACC. Well, near the top of the list was senior guard Jerian Grant and senior forward (and minor league pitching prospect) Pat Connaughton. Brey read the list every day to get an emotional boost out of what could come.

''After you lose 17 games, you need something,'' Brey said. ''I look and go, OK. Those two guys, we really got a shot.''

Connaughton and Grant briefly flirted with the idea of turning pro before deciding to spend one final season in South Bend, Indiana. Grant led the Irish with 16.8 points and Connaughton averaged 12.8 with a team-best 7.8 rebounds.

''When I did decide to come back, this is what I envisioned. I envisioned having a team that would have a chance to win an ACC Championship, having a team that's going to be able to make a deep run in March,'' Grant said.

Here's what else to look for in the Midwest Regional matchup at Pittsburgh's Consol Center.

NORTHEASTERN: Northeastern is back in the tournament for the first time since 1991, its eighth appearance overall. The Huskies last won a tournament game in 1984, a 90-87 win over Long Island.

Northeastern finished in a four-way tie for first place in the CAA during the regular season and was the No. 3 seed in the conference tournament. Northeastern became just the fourth team in CAA history to beat the top two seeds en route to the championship.

NU is making its third appearance as a No. 14 seed in the tournament, losing both times.

The No. 14 has produced a winner each of the last two seasons - Mercer over Duke in 2014 and Harvard beat New Mexico in 2013.

For a school known more for hockey than March Madness, everyone on campus has wanted a piece of the Huskies.

''I got a lot of high fives going to class,'' junior forward Quincy Ford said.

HOME SCHOOLED: Northeastern forward Scott Eatherton, of Hershey, Pennsylvania, and guard David Walker, of Stow, Ohio, both grew up within short driving distance of Pittsburgh. Eatherton's sister even attended college at Pittsburgh.

''I had a lot of people texting me, hey, can you get me tickets?'' he said. ''I'm like, I only have so many.''

FAMILAR FACE: Northeastern and the Irish have played each other only one time before, in 1997. But Brey is certainly familiar with the Northeastern program from his days in the CAA coaching Delaware.

''I have a lot of respect for Bill Coen, their coach, and how they play, especially on the offensive end. This is your typical mid-major team. I had a couple of them at Delaware, older guys that know how to play together and have won together for a while,'' he said. ''I told our guys, it's like an ACC game. We have to prepare like it's an ACC game.''

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