This is Anthony Solomon’s 25th season as a college basketball coach, an odyssey that’s taken him to nine schools and nine NCAA tournaments. He was in the Elite Eight with Virginia in 1995, the Sweet 16 with Notre Dame in 2003.
Although the Fighting Irish have yet to play in this NCAA tournament, Solomon, a Newport News native and Notre Dame assistant coach, considers this “one of the most rewarding years” of his career.
The Irish graduated three starters from last season’s 27-7 team, which finished second in the Big East and advanced one round in the NCAA tournament. Conference coaches picked Notre Dame ninth in the 16-team league this season and tabbed senior forward Tim Abromaitis preseason first-team All-Big East.
But two games into the season, Abromaitis tore his right ACL during a practice. His year was done, and so, it appeared was the team’s.
After a 65-58 setback at Rutgers, the Irish were 11-8, 3-3 in the Big East.
They’re 11-3 since. They finished third in the Big East at 13-5 behind Syracuse and Marquette. And late tonight, somewhere around 10 p.m., seventh-seeded Notre Dame (22-11) will tip off against 10th-seeded Xavier (21-12) in the NCAA tournament here at Greensboro Coliseum.
“To have a year start off in that sort of fashion where we didn't have Tim and lose him right away is kind of -- almost seemed unfair for really our team,” junior forward Jack Cooley said Thursday. “But then to do what we did and pull it together so well and go on that nine-game win streak in the Big East (was) just huge.”
The Irish’s victims in that streak included Syracuse and Marquette. It was the Orange’s only regular-season defeat.
Credit 12th-year head coach Mike Brey, his staff – assistant coach Rod Balanis hails from Williamsburg – and young players such as freshman Pat Connaughton and sophomores Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins.
The players, Solomon said, “stepped up in a big way individually and collectively.”
Notre Dame isn’t deep, witness point guard Atkins’ 38.2 minutes per game, or potent. The Irish average a pedestrian 66.5 points and shoot 43.2 percent.
But Notre Dame ranks 40th nationally in scoring defense at 61.5 points and averages a meager 10 turnovers per game, third nationally. Plus, the Irish commit fewer fouls, 13.8 per game, than any team in the country.
Little stuff like that can add to big-time results.
“I feel like it was two different seasons almost,” senior guard Scott Martin said, “before Tim got hurt, and the way we prepared, and the way we game planned and stuff. And then after Tim, we kind of had to figure things out again and regroup and go from there. So I think it was just a lot of hard work and dedication out of us that paid off.”
Brey, who has guided Notre Dame to eight NCAA appearances, five in the last six years, credits Martin.
“You have to have great, great leadership,” he said. “And I don't know if I have been more proud of a captain like Scott Martin. Because his partner in leading was supposed to be Tim Abromaitis, and he kind of lost him.
“So for him to lead through a crisis early in the season, I think really helped us. And we had our young guys, we committed to them and got them playing time. They needed to play, they needed to get reps. Even if we're losing games, they needed to get in there and get reps and I think they grew from that. But I would really go with leadership.”
If Notre Dame survives Xavier – Brey compares the Musketeers to Big East rivals West Virginia and Louisville – the Irish likely would face Duke on Sunday. Brey served as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski for nine seasons from 1988-95, which included the Blue Devils’ 1991 and ’92 national championships.
Brey’s second Notre Dame team lost to Duke 84-77 in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Greenville, S.C. Krzyzewski and Brey have never elected to play one another during the regular season, but suffice to say, Brey would welcome the opportunity Sunday.
He might even lobby for a Saturday game. That’s St. Patrick’s Day.
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