Keeping their eyes on the prize

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey removed his blinders on Sunday and surveyed the scene, one which was in stark contrast to the brown, dead landscape surrounding the Fighting Irish in mid-February.

With a dialed-back "burn" offense slow-cooking up an improbable resurgence, Notre Dame peeled off six wins in seven outings and went from a team 100 miles upwind of the NCAA tournament bubble to a stone-cold, bracket lock.

Or so it thought.

Perhaps karmic payback for lulling the opposition to sleep in recent weeks, Brey and his boys developed a case of restless legs syndrome as CBS dropped the curtain on 63 teams Sunday before getting to the South Region's final matchup.

"The only thing I said as it got late was, 'What time does the NIT show come in?'" Brey joked.

Senior point guard Tory Jackson wasn't laughing.

"To be honest, if I would have took off my shirt and squeezed it out, I probably could have filled a bucket," he said. "I was sweating like crazy."

Punchless just three weeks ago, the Fighting Irish (23-11) snagged a surprising No. 6 seed and a Thursday date (11:25 a.m.) with No. 11 Old Dominion (26-8) in New Orleans.

Oh, the Madness.

Likely only needing a first-round win at last week's Big East Conference tournament to secure an NCAA berth, Notre Dame came a deep ball shy against eventual winner West Virginia of advancing to the league title game. The late-season tear, with star forward Luke Harangody either sidelined or coming off the bench, grabbed members of the selection committee by the backs of their necks.

It's a tribute to Brey's eternal optimism and an example of his ability to creatively adapt when the Irish's situation was at its bleakest. By downshifting his offense, he went from a coach facing questions again about his future in South Bend to boasting about what is arguably his greatest achievement in 10 seasons at Notre Dame.

He made no attempt to downplay it.

"To be part of this thing, and it's so hard to get to this thing, "Brey said. "It's very hard to get to it more now given the league that we play through to get there. I told our guys about our history, to really cherish this and you know, be proud of it. I don't know if that's ever been done before. You know, to play from off the map two and a half weeks ago and really just an afterthought, to a 6-seed has got to be a little bit unprecedented in the history of finishes. I love the momentum we have heading into this next tournament."

The "New Orleans Open," as he put it. Blinders back on.

"All I know is we're in a mini-tournament in New Orleans, and Baylor and Sam Houston State are on the other side," he said. "We've got our hands full with Old Dominion. If we're fortunate enough to win the New Orleans Open, we'll have to come back on Saturday and beat the winner of Baylor and Sam Houston State. Very good teams. I don't even know who else is in that region."

I believe him. Why would he peek when keeping his eyes and those of his Irish players focused on a point just beyond their shoelaces has gotten them this far?

His players trust him. The last part of the season prepared them.

A brutal final stretch to close out the Big East slate makes a bruising Monarchs squad, which rolled to Colonial Athletic Association regular-season and tournament titles, more manageable. Notre Dame has seen the same kind of wide-bodied lineup over and over throughout the past few weeks.

Is it a first-round sweat? Sure. They all are unless your team's a No. 1 seed facing a hyphenated school that most folks couldn't locate without a Google Maps search. It might not be enough of one to drain an Irish team of its winning fever.

"I told our guys they're really to be congratulated on earning a 6 [seed]," Brey said. "I think it's a heck of an honor. We've been caught up in the midst of the run to finish the season. Obviously, we feel it's a very good run. It's better than we thought inside the locker room to be rewarded with a 6-seed, very powerful."

It's better than everyone thought -- at least two seeds better. It's something to be cherished. It's manufacturing your own luck and then getting a shot of bringing down the house.