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New fame

Notre Dame enters the NCAA tournament with a different feel around its basketball program.

While football will always dominate Irish athletics, the basketball team has caught people's attention.

"It's hoops right now, I can tell you that much," coach Mike Brey said with a laugh when his team was announced as a No. 2 seed in the Southwest Region with a matchup against No. 15-seed Akron (23-12) on Friday in Chicago.

The Irish (26-6) have their best seed since also being a No. 2 in 1981, and the players are seeing a difference in how they are regarded.

"I think there's a lot of new Notre Dame fans out there," forward Tim Abromaitis said. "Even just talking around the streets in New York (at the Big East tournament) when we got there, it was really cool to see just people on the street wanted to take pictures with us and just shouting, 'Go Irish,' that kind of stuff, and it's definitely something none of us have experienced before here, and I think it just speaks to how well we've done this year."

As much as the Irish are enjoying the attention, Brey does have a bit of a beef with people just realizing how strong the program has been recently.

Brey has guided Notre Dame to seven NCAA appearances since taking over the program in the 2000-01 season.

In 11 seasons, Notre Dame has only had a losing record in the Big East twice (2005-06 and 2008-09), and the Irish finished this season's 14 Big East victories matched the school record set in 2007-08.

But the consistency of the program has been overshadowed by early exits in March. The Irish have only made the Sweet 16 once under Brey, and even the coach realizes that tournament success is important to building Notre Dame's basketball brand name.

"A great example of it in a small piece is that no one talked about us in the preseason because we lost a first-round game," Brey said of last year's 51-50 loss to Old Dominion in the NCAA tournament. "We took ourselves off the radar so fast.

"My feeling was, when I got here, you gotta start somewhere. You haven't been to the NCAA Tournament. You better have an identity in this league. First of all, let's win at this place (home). Then it is, 'Well, you can't win on the road.' Well, you know what? You're lucky we're winning at home in this league; you better take what you've got. Now, you inch up and steal a few on the road.

"But I also think, too, I've been here trying to educate our fan base on league basketball, league play, 15 years in the league and the first five years in the league, nobody really wanted to pay attention much. It was like, 'I know we're in a league, but it aint going too good.' And the league has changed, too. We're still kind of developing our fan base. It's getting a feel for the Big East in the midst of Big Ten country."

The Journal Gazette's Assistant Sports Editor Tony Krausz covers The University of Notre Dame. Krausz, a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a native of St. Louis, has been assistant sports editor since October 2005. Prior to joining the JG, he worked at two papers in Mississippi covering high school and college athletics.