SOUTH BEND, Ind. — John MacLeod talks about pain a lot these days when he describes the Notre Dame basketball program.
"We're going through a painful rebuilding process," he says.
"We're experiencing growing pains," he says.
MacLeod may be only 55 years old, but he has enough aches for a man of 75.
MacLeod probably felt that old Jan. 18 at Butler University's ancient Hinkle Fieldhouse. A three-point basket by center Jon Ross had just brought the young Irish to eight points of their hosts, 62-54, with 4:15 remaining. There was time enough for one of those patented stirring comebacks by Notre Dame.
Then came the sharp pains. Butler guard Jermaine Guice made his third three-pointer of the game. Ouch. Notre Dame promptly turned the ball over, and Guice hit another three-point basket. Arghh. The Irish gave it right back, and Ross had to foul. Ooooh. Bulldogs forward John Taylor made two free throws. Final score: 70-56.
Somebody get the heating pad.
"We're a young, inexperienced team, and this game shows it," MacLeod said. "We spurted at times, then we backed up. Then we'd have another spurt and go down again. We were in reasonably good position toward the end, and they had two threes, and we had two turnovers."
And another loss. It dropped the Irish to 7-7 and 2-3 against Midwestern Collegiate Conference schools. Notre Dame (8-9 through Sunday's games) is being mentioned as expansion fodder for a bunch of conferences, but this Irish squad would be second-division material in most. "Right now, as a team, we're not all that talented," sophomore forward Malik Russell said.
Sure, Notre Dame played Indiana to a five-point game and even beat Big East up-and-comer Boston College on the road. But the Irish also absorbed a humbling, 83-59 loss to Detroit Mercy. The 14-point defeat at Butler, a perennial in-state patsy for the Irish, wasn't pretty, either.
And neither is the prognosis for the rest of the season. A young team (only one senior of note) without a proven track record faces a brutal schedule. But the Irish's problems could go beyond this season. As the country's sole independent of renown, Notre Dame must accomplish its rebuilding project against the present college basketball tides. Unable to dock in the safe harbor of a conference affiliation, with its recognition, scheduling comforts and slick ESPN veneer, Notre Dame stands alone. That may be good enough on the football field, where a storied tradition and $35-million television contract perpetuate a rabid national following, but things are different on the hardwood.
The recent conference expansion frenzy has thinned the ranks of the independents. These days, it's Notre Dame and not much else. Check the standings.
"I think it's more difficult to exist as an independent today than it was 10 years ago," said DePaul Coach Joey Meyer, whose school ended 60 years of rugged individualism by becoming a charter member of the Great Midwest Conference last season.
Independent life for the Irish isn't as great as it was in the 1970s and '80s. Notre Dame hasn't landed a top-10 recruit since LaPhonso Ellis chose the Irish five years ago. And South Bend hasn't been a priority visit for big-time prospects since. "There's not one bona fide program-turner on the roster," recruiting guru Bob Gibbons said.
The lack of a built-in conference schedule has forced the Irish to cobble together a demanding schedule that includes 14 schools that competed in last year's NCAA Tournament, featuring Duke, Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky and North Carolina. Why not just play the Chicago Bulls and get it over with?
"That's just what Notre Dame does," MacLeod said. "We have to rise up to the schedule."
MacLeod's reputation as a teacher and rebuilder of struggling teams--the Oklahoma Sooners, the Phoenix Suns, the Dallas Mavericks--is considerable, but his construction timetable promises to be a long one. MacLeod points with pride to last season's runner-up finish in the NIT. But let's face it: No one signs on to play big-time college basketball with the dream of going to the No Interest Tournament. The Irish haven't qualified for the NCAA Tournament the past two years, and things aren't looking too promising this season.
To some, Notre Dame's program has merely hit a lull, and MacLeod will correct things. If Digger Phelps had only recruited a little better during his last few years in South Bend, the Irish wouldn't have any problems.
But he didn't. And they do.
"Because the squad size in basketball is so small, a year in which you fail to get a counted-on player or two, particularly if they are great players, can be very damaging," Irish Athletic Director Dick Rosenthal said. "If you have a couple years like that, your fortunes are affected."