NEW YORK -- The morning of Feb. 20, a Tuesday, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey took his two star seniors out to breakfast and hashed out over hash browns Notre Dame's postseason picture.

The Fighting Irish lost at home to Miami the night before. A 77-74 defeat put Notre Dame at 16-12 with a 6-9 record in the ACC. Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell sat at South Bend's Uptown Kitchen and listened to their coach lay out the likely end game for this season: a three-letter tournament instead of four. 


It looked as if Colson and Farrell were going to finish their college careers by missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time. 

"I thought that was a big opportunity we missed that could have really helped us," Brey told CBS Sports on Thursday night, speaking about the Miami loss.

At that point Colson was two games from returning after nearly two months away due to a foot injury. Since he returned, Notre Dame went 3-2, the two losses coming to two teams that may well end up as No. 1 seeds. Notre Dame always seemed to be chasing that one win it just couldn't capture this season.

The final dose of that came on Thursday night, with its 88-70 loss to Duke in the ACC quarterfinal. The outcome was probably too big a beatdown, too convincing of a loss, to salvage Notre Dame's chances for the NCAA Tournament. How refreshing it was, then, to hear Brey all but wave the white flag afterward. Fun as it is to hear coaches lobby for at-larges every March, the truth is a lot of them are privately realistic about the writing on the wall. 

What Brey suspected at that breakfast 16 days ago probably became truth on Thursday night. This tempting but inconsistent team is headed to the NIT. 

"I'm done campaigning," Brey said. "I'm really proud that we got to the bubble, after being 3-7 [in the ACC]. I talked to them the whole time about the NIT could be where we're at. I just told them. We're very realistic."

Notre Dame has an unusual case, obviously. Colson missed 14 of Notre Dame's 32 games, but even though he's one of the 10 best (or certainly most valuable) players in the country, the résumé still lacks with him in the lineup. A home loss to Ball State, a neutral-court loss to Indiana. Overall, 14 defeats. That's a lot -- and it's a trash heap of Ls when you bring up Notre Dame's team sheet and realize the Fighting Irish only have two Quadrant 1 wins. 

And three Quadrant 3 losses. 

"The seniors have been kind of spoiled," Brey said. "They've only known Elite Eights and the NCAAs. We'll be ready for anything. I may light every candle at our grotto on campus Sunday morning, but we'll be ready for anything. No more campaigning." 

Our Jerry Palm updated his bracket Thursday night. He's got the Fighting Irish in the first four out

It's hard to know for sure when a team plays in a league tournament game if it's truly do or die, but Notre Dame seemingly was facing that ultimatum. Knocking off Duke while fully healthy would have been emphatic. It would have sent the message: this team can beat the best in college basketball. Instead, Notre Dame was gassed and gutted. 

Brey had pride for his team's run even to get to the bubble discussion. Twenty-four hours prior, it set a school record with a 21-point comeback steal against Virginia Tech. It kept hope alive. It was only down four at halftime on Thursday -- far less than the Virginia Tech gap. Then in swooped Duke and Marvin Bagley III to smash the whole thing to smithereens. Bagley had 33 points and 17 rebounds. 

"You don't know what to take away," Brey said. "They made 3s early, then we didn't help in the post, then [Bagley] goes to work. I've never seen anything like that. He's one of the most impressive guys. One of the things that struck me today: They rebound at a level I have not seen in college basketball. Some of those, they are just towering. We had good blockouts on stuff. On both ends of the floor it's really staggering."

Perhaps most telling was Brey's willingness to discuss with reporters, right in front of his team in their locker room, the NIT. It's not something you see most coaches do, but Brey is not wired like most coaches. Notre Dame, once a member of the Big East, once a program that annually played at MSG every March, hasn't played in the Garden the past four years. Getting there -- making the NIT semifinals at the very least -- can be the next goal. 

"Just tell me where we're going," Brey said. "We'll be honored wherever we go. ... One of the things I told the seniors, if it is the NIT, Notre's Dame's played in the NIT a bunch. We've never won it. I said, 'You know what would be neat? What if we had an NIT banner you guys hung up as seniors and you'd come back and go — I know it's the NCAA — but remember that year? To come back and pull that off?' We'd be really proud." 

This hasn't been the season anyone expected for Notre Dame, but injuries will rain hell on your plans. The harsh reality for Notre Dame is, it was never consistent enough, even with Colson, to build a case. Give Brey credit for being a realist. It's that kind of attitude that helped him build this program into one of the 25 best in the country. That will remain true even without an NCAA Tournament ticket this season.