If one of the greatest seasons in Notre Dame basketball history ended in the round of 32 against an ordinary Florida State team, than what might the downside look like?
It seems as if Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey and the rest of the Fighting Irish cagers are about to find out.
Brey has found himself shorthanded following the premature and ill-advised departure of Carleton Scott for an NBA Draft that never looked at him. And now this: a season-ending knee injury to his lone dependable upperclassmen and star Tim Abromaitis.
After being seriously outclassed by Missouri 87-58 and outgutted down the stretch by Georgia 61-57 even with Abromaitis, the Irish found themselves out on a limb and a long way from home against a decent Gonzaga team in Spokane, Wash., on Wednesday night. The result was a predictable 73-53 thrashing.
Brey has become accustomed to depending on seniors for leadership and backbone. But with only fifth-year transfer Scott Martin to look up to, the young Irish look ragged and confused a lot of the time.
Some people are going to have to be inconvenienced before the Irish reach Big East play. The free lunches on the Notre Dame schedule are just about over. If the Irish play as poorly as they have been playing once they begin conference play, it's going to be a very long season underneath the dome.
Here are five players who have to step it up if Notre Dame is going to have a winning season or even be competitive. Never mind the NCAA Tournament for now.
Martin was supposed to be a sure-fire stud after transferring from Purdue three years ago. But after sitting out his first season per NCAA transfer rules, Martin tore up his knee in practice and missed the entire 2009-10 campaign.
Last season, Martin showed flashes of promise if not brilliance but was still second fiddle to Irish mega-star Ben Hensbrough, Abromaitis, Scott and others.
This year was supposed to be Martin's coming-out party, but after pumping in 23 points in a 93-69 rout of Delaware State, Martin has turned into an invisible man. Often hunting a shot on the perimeter that isn't there or missing wide open jumpers.
Against Gonzaga, Martin was a miserable 0 for 6 from the field and had just four rebounds. In the second half it appeared as if the Zags left him alone at times, almost daring him to drain the trey. If Martin is going to loiter at the three-point line, then he simply must can his shots when he has the opportunity.
So far, Martin has been the biggest disappointment as a Notre Dame transfer since Dennis Lattimore.
Last season, Cooley accounted himself well, showing nimble feet and a delicate touch in the paint. The big man was instrumental in Notre Dame's rousing 89-79 overtime home win over Louisville.
Luke Harangody comparisons were drawn and it looked as if the Irish had a go-to big man on the horizon if not an out-and-out star.
But so far this season, Cooley has not seized the opportunity to rise to the next level. Brey put him on notice by leaving him out of the starting lineup in the final exhibition against Stonehill, citing some sort of academic issue that Brey later described as being "fixed."
Against Detroit, Cooley looked flustered and frustrated against marginal center LaMarcus Lowe and his cohorts. Even though the Irish rallied to win the game, it seemed as if a pattern were emerging.
If Cooley struggled against Detroit, he out and out stank in the debacle against Missouri, as did pretty much the whole Irish team, aside from maybe the now departed Abromaitis.
At times this year it seems that Cooley has been lackadaisical on the boards or worse yet jogging from one end of the court to the next while the rest of the team hustles back on defense. Cooley may look like Harangody but does not appear to posses his motor.
Brey has been so perplexed and vexed by Cooley's performance so far this season that he has even used a smaller all-guard lineup at times.
Cooley had better fix his engine and get it in gear if the Irish want to have any chance at respectability.
Atkins is a fine player. A smooth athletic point guard who is a nightmare to guard off the dribble. He doesn't seem to be challenged by running the team or finding his friends for open shots and easy assists. But with Abromaitis standing by on crutches the silky sophomore from Columbus, Md., will be asked to do more.
The season started out great for Atkins as he looked fine in the exhibition games before pouring in 27 against Mississippi Valley State. But then he was struck down with a severe case of tonsillitis and had to spent some time in the infirmary while the Irish downed Sam Houston State 74-41 and Delaware State 93-69 without him.
He barely recovered in time to make the trip to Kansas City, where he and his teammates were destroyed by a superior Missouri squad, 87-58—a game that Brey described as men against boys.
But Atkins is going to have to be a man if the Irish are going to claw their way back into the picture. It's not enough to just run the team. Brey will look to Atkins as an option to replace some of the scoring punch left in the void by the absence of Abromaitis.
Atkins, however, looked very much the sophomore against Gonzaga. He never really got into a rhythm against counterpart David Stockton and finished just 2 of 9 from the floor. He does not appear to be playing with the same panache since his illness.
After sitting out last season with an injury, Jerian Grant has definitely been a bright spot for Brey so far. Even in the whitewash against Gonzaga, Grant had some aggressive drives down the lane and finished with 16 points. He also tallied a career-high 20 points in the difficult loss against Georgia.
It's not so much that Grant needs to step up his game as much as he just needs to fit in and play off of Atkin's strengths.
Both players are very young and could evolve into a lethal backcourt combination as time goes on. Although Brey needs for this to happen sooner rather than later.
It's not all on Grant. As the point guard Atkins needs to find him. Together, they could perhaps be the quickest guard tandem the Joyce Center has ever seen.
If the Irish are going to get back into it, Grant must continue to climb the ladder. He does have the talent to make a strong contribution.
Once upon a time, back in Digger Phelps' salad days in the 1970s, the Joyce Center was one of the true pits in the nation. Aside from the obvious pinnacle of the era when Notre Dame halted UCLA's NCAA-record 88-game winning streak, the Irish also toppled top-ranked San Francisco, No. 1 North Carolina and an undefeated DePaul team coached by Ray Meyer in double overtime.
Recently, however, the once magic and manic crowds of long ago now seem staid in comparison inside the remodeled version of the old Joyce Center, now christened Purcell Pavilion.
You only need witness the raucous atmosphere inside the McCarthy Athletic Center in Spokane on Wednesday night to realize how much a rowdy crowd can help pull the home team through a tough fight—not that the Bulldogs were in one against the Irish.
In Notre Dame's home opener, an 80-67 win against Mississippi Valley State, the atmosphere was so morgue-like that UND radio commentator Jack Nolan voiced his displeasure at the small size and rationed zeal of the spectators.
Even so, the Irish have managed to string together 23 straight home victories. Time and time again Brey has urged the students, not only to show up, but to also be the voice of the team. A loud partisan crowd can carry a squad through cold shooting spells by urging them to play tough defense and by unnerving opposing shooters and passers.
The Notre Dame students must show the basketball team the same love and support it showers on their bigger gridiron brothers. Notre Dame is going to need to win the majority of its home games if the Irish are going to have any chance at all of salvaging the season. And when they are outmanned against one of the Big East power programs, they're going to need a sixth man to be the equalizer.