A year ago, Mike Brey sounded the warning cry, knowing full well that a return to the NCAA Tournament was a bit of a long shot. The Irish went true to form, finishing 16-14 overall and 6-10 in the Big East—his first sub-.500 mark in conference play in his six years at Notre Dame.
Video: Russell Carter
Carter talks about his goals, what he learned from last year and this years "gritty" Irish team.
The Irish are less experienced and, in some respects, not as well prepared as a year ago with the graduation of standouts Chris Quinn, Torin Francis and Rick Cornett.
Yet Brey doesn't seem to be afraid to allow his players to think big this year.
"There's no reason we can't dream big dreams," Brey said. "If we hadn't been to the NIT and we had some 10-17 (records) on the board…But I don't know if anybody's been closer than us of getting that bid."
Indeed, the Irish wouldn't be on a three-year streak of failing to land an NCAA Tournament berth if the selection committee had been a bit more kind in either 2003-04 or 2004-05. In both seasons, the Irish finished 9-7 in Big East play. That's normally good enough for an NCAA Tournament berth, at least one of the two years.
But the Irish were denied both times, and when they fell to 6-10 in conference play last year, it became a three-year streak of NIT trips.
Now the Irish face a schedule that is quite a bit more forgiving, which could be just soft enough to allow them to slip in the back door for the first time since making a trip to the Sweet 16 in 2002-03.
"This time last year Florida was not talked about and George Mason was George Mason," said Brey, referring to the national title winner and previously unknown runner-up. "That's what is great about college basketball. It's crazy, and we've been right there.
"You don't get anything for coming close, other than the NIT. Hell, we understand that better than anybody. But that doesn't mean we aren't going to come back the next year dreaming and swinging and going for it.
"I don't want them selling themselves short just because we haven't had an NCAA bid the last couple of years."
Brey will rely on a small senior class, a promising group of sophomores and a four-man freshman unit that has some toughness.
Senior sharpshooter Colin Falls (13.8 points per game) leads an array of three-point shooting threats that should once again make the Irish a challenge to cover on the perimeter. Fellow senior Russell Carter (11.5 ppg.) figures to come into his own now that he's at the forefront of the talent pool.
"Falls becomes more confident (being a leader) because he's been in it the longest," Brey said. "Carter becomes more confident doing that, but I don't want him taking away from his game."
Sophomore point guard Kyle McAlarney (6.6 ppg.) will launch from long distance when he's not distributing as he tries to fill the ample shoes of Quinn.
It's underneath the basket where the Irish face their greatest challenge after finishing second-to-last in the Big East in scoring defense.
Junior forward Rob Kurz (6.4 ppg., 5.1 rpg.) will provide maturity and leadership.
"Kurz is our hardest worker," Brey said. "Our guys look to him. I think he's made himself a legitimate Big East forward. He's walking around like a man now. I have not coached a guy that spends more time wanting to get better. The only guy we had here in the same category was Troy Murphy."
Former Indiana Mr. Basketball Luke Zeller, a 6-foot-11 sophomore, tries to take his game up a couple of notches after a disappointing freshman campaign.
"Zeller has too much good stuff here (pointing to his heart) and here (pointing to his head) not to be a success," Brey said.
Where Brey hopes the Irish catch up is with the sophomore class that boasts, in addition to McAlarney and Zeller, forward Zach Hillesland and swingman Ryan Ayers. Hillesland has matured into a leader, according to Brey, and Ayers offers length as a combination guard/forward.
How much the freshman class contributes will be contingent upon the development of that sophomore class. Guard Tory Jackson will spell McAlarney. Luke Harangody, a 6-foot-8, 250-pounder, will be given a chance to pound the boards. Joe Harden is an interesting prospect as a high-scoring, 6-foot-7 guard while Jonathan Peoples figures to have difficulty getting much playing time behind a group of veteran outside shooters.
"We need the sophomore class to deliver as a whole," Brey said. "Our four (freshmen) as a whole are probably the four toughest young guys we've had since I've been here."
Brey hopes the Irish can take advantage of the fact that 19 of the 22 players named to the all-Big East team have moved on.
"We had eight teams that got a (NCAA Tournament) bid and a ninth team, Cincinnati, had a great resume," Brey said. "Teams 10, 11 and 12 (in the Big East Tournament)—St. John's, Louisville and us—didn't have to win the tournament to steal a bid.
"So there are ways of doing this, and you have to present those ways to the team because when you come in, they want to know how you can do it.
"You can't make believe (the 16-14 season last year) didn't happen. But I do think we were hardened by it."