SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame basketball is doing something its football team hasn’t been able to do in recent years: thrive in big games.
The Irish (25-9), who last weekend advanced to the Atlantic Coast Conference title game for the second time in three years, head into the NCAA Tournament as the only team to make it to the Elite Eight each of the past two seasons.
"When the lights have been brightest, we’ve been in a rhythm lately where we just love it, embrace it and deliver in it," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "I think it’s gotten to be a little bit of the tradition of the program where it’s handed down to the younger guys and they’re dragged along by the older guys that have been part of it. I really see that with our upperclassmen now. It’s kind of what we do. We deliver when the lights are brightest."
That wasn’t always the case.
In 16 seasons in the Big East, the Irish never advanced to the league tournament championship game. Before winning six NCAA Tournament games the past two seasons, the Irish had won just six tournament games in nine previous appearances under Brey. Before that, Notre Dame hadn’t won a tournament game since 1989.
So six tournament wins in two seasons is a big deal, especially at a university known as a football school. Irish seniors V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia, who were freshmen when the Irish finished 15-17 in 2013-14, say the recent tournament success gives the Irish confidence as they prepare to face Princeton (23-6), which has won 19 games in a row, in the opening game Thursday in Buffalo, New York.
"We’re a very confident team, whether it be what we’ve done this regular season or what we’ve done in the postseason in the past," said Beachem, a former New Haven standout. "We can draw on those experiences. That doesn’t separate us from anybody else as far the fact we still have to lace them up Thursday."
Vasturia said his message to younger players is not to put too much pressure on themselves.
"I think the only thing I would say to them is enjoy it," he said. "Go out there and have fun."
Brey said he believes that attitude is key to Notre Dame’s recent success. He said his early Irish teams played with the "weight of the world on our shoulders."
"I was really tight," he said. "I don’t think I helped our team sometimes. So as I’ve gotten older I’ve gotten looser with them. We smile a little bit, we keep them loose. They’re going to play hard. They’ve prepared themselves. I just don’t want them tied up in knots."
Vasturia said the Irish know they need to focus on each game, but the goal is to do better than they have the past two seasons.
"We want to try to make it to the next step. The first step to that was getting back in the tournament. We’ve done that, we’re in there," he said. "Now we have to take care of business."