2002-2003 Fighting Irish fly past Illinois on its way to the Sweet Sixteen.
Mike Brey’s third season at the helm of the Fighting Irish culminated in Brey’s third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament as Notre Dame head coach. It would also mark the first breakthrough of his tenure – a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. The 2002-2003 Fighting Irish featured senior Matt Carroll and Sophomore Chris Thomas, two of the best players to come through the program since the 70s and 80s. The team also featured former McDonalds All American and freshman Torin Francis, as well as transfer Dan Miller and current Notre Dame radio color commentator Jordan Cornette.
The regular season was an exciting one, which saw the Irish reach as high as number 5 in the country in the polls. One early season stretch featured three straight wins over highly ranked teams – 13th ranked Marquette, 9th ranked Maryland, and 2nd Ranked Texas, none of which were closer than six points. The Irish however faltered a bit down the stretch, culminating in three straight losses to UConn, Rutgers and Syracuse, a win over Georgetown to end the regular season, and a disappointing early exit at the hands of St. Johns in the Big East Tournament.
Even with 10 losses, Notre Dame’s good wins were enough for a five seed in the Big Dance. The first round matchup with Milwaukee came down to a last-second miss, and the Irish escaped with a 70-69 win. In the second round, the Irish would come out hot, hitting 13 of 24 threes en route to a 68-60 upset of 4th-seeded Illinois. The Irish packed up and headed west to the Sweet Sixteen, where they would fall to one-seed Arizona, but the appearance in the Sweet Sixteen showed a glimpse of some of the success Mike Brey would see in the near future.
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