CLEVELAND— Sometimes, Notre Dame happens. When it does, those observing from close range may find themselves euphoric and dizzy, as if overwhelmed by some illicit agent, seeing the world as a Technicolor blur with stars and sparks everywhere. When it is done, when lines come into focus again, then it is time to sort what just occurred.
Notre Dame happened again on Thursday, and now it happens to be in the Elite Eight for the first time in 36 years. There are few teams with the capacity for the second-half offensive furor that propelled the Irish to an 81-70 win over Wichita State at Quicken Loans Arena, and few performances to compare it to. It showcased the brew of athleticism and selflessness that makes this coach Mike Brey’s best team, that makes history in a program starving for a postseason like this. And it allowed everyone to wonder just how far Notre Dame can go.
“You don’t hate a vibe like that,” Irish forward Pat Connaughton said. “That’s something you’re pretty excited about.”
It was 75% shooting after intermission. It was, in one stretch, 17 shots made in 20 attempts. It was a pull-up three-pointer by Demetrius Jackson in transition. It was Connaughton passing to Steve Vasturia, cutting backdoor, receiving a perfect bounce pass from Vasturia in return and flicking in a sick layup. It was Jerian Grant calmly pump-faking with one second on the shot clock and hitting a three-pointer at the horn. It was Grant whipping a no-look pass to Zach Auguste for a score and then turning to Notre Dame fans with bug eyes, followed by Jackson connecting with Auguste for a roof-roiling alley-oop dunk one trip later.
It was something else, really. In one moment, Wichita State was there, with a lead for 12 seconds. In the next, there was nothing to see all the way to the horizon line.
“No one plays offense like that, and when we get it into that gear, it’s really scary,” Brey said. “And it’s demoralizing, to have to chase us around.”
Notre Dame has played excellent offense for years, minimizing turnovers and emphasizing the relentless pursuit of the better shot. The Irish’s overall adjusted offensive efficiency this season ranks third nationally, per kenpom.com. So this was no accidental March overdose of overdrive. Everyone is paying attention now, but that shouldn’t warp the context. Good offense has been characteristic of a consistent program that has won 20 or more games in eight of the last nine years.
Never, though, has it looked as it did Thursday, against a top-20 defense—with perhaps the recent exception of a similar second-half, 24-2 run against North Carolina in the ACC tournament championship. The promise in that punch is the thing. We now know Notre Dame can play offense at a level it maybe never has before. We don’t yet know if that can level even a leviathan lurking around the corner.
Before the Irish head to the floor, they pump a specific tune through locker room speakers: “Sky’s the Limit,” by Lil’ Wayne, their personalized version of a pregame anthem. We will find out soon enough if that is true. “We didn’t just come here to get to the Sweet 16,” Connaughton said. “This is where you start separating yourselves from so many other teams in the country, and in history. We wanted to make sure we came out smoking hot and playing our brand of basketball.”
Indeed, Notre Dame happened at the outset, too: Eight makes in 10 attempts to start the game, every one either a three-pointer or a layup/dunk. “We wanted to go out there and stomp on their throats,” Auguste said. In one silky motion early on, Auguste motioned to set a top-of-the-key screen, waited for Shockers center Darius Carter to overcommit, then darted back down the lane for a pass from Grant and an easy dunk. At that instant, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall looked as if he was about to burst into flames.
“The best offensive team we’ve seen all year, hands down,” Marshall said.
When Wichita State slowed the game down and snatched a second-half lead, Brey called a timeout and reminded his team it had been there before. Notre Dame flattened out its offense a bit due to the Shockers overplaying passing lanes up high, giving Grant and Jackson better driving lanes. But mostly it was just a single Jackson three-pointer, part of his team-high 20 points, that rocketed the Irish offense. “One guy hits a shot, everyone else gets confident and wants to join the party,” Vasturia said.
By any reasonable measure, the Irish have earned a spot in the discussion of best-ever in school history. The program has not pushed this far in the NCAA tournament since 1979.
But as Brey and Connaughton walked off the floor arm-in-arm Thursday night, they passed another group making its way through the tunnel. And the scene turned back the clock to a midwinter day that preceded that last Elite Eight trip by more than five years.
On Jan. 19, 1974, an undefeated monolith arrived in South Bend, Ind. By the end of the day, John Wooden and Bill Walton and UCLA had lost their first game after 88 straight wins.
On Saturday in Cleveland, history thunders toward Notre Dame basketball again.
On Saturday, here comes Kentucky.