CLEVELAND – They have been pushed and pulled and prodded in seemingly every direction over the past few days, obligations here and there being the price paid by any team good enough to get to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
No player inside the Notre Dame locker room has been on a stage this big or bright during their collegiate careers. And the attention that comes with getting to the school’s first Sweet 16 since 2003 can sometimes seem staggering.
But they know that as soon as the microphones and mini-cameras are turned off, as soon as the last of the outsiders exit and that locker room door closes, the only ones who will remain are the 13 guys who dared to dream the same dream so many months ago when no one thought any of this was possible.
They’ve done all of this together.
Come Thursday evening, it will be time to lock in and do what the Irish do well — go to work. Pass. Run. Shoot. Play. Compete. And that, the Irish believe, will be the easiest part of this entire process. No more media. No more questions. No more answers. Just 40 minutes on the clock, a ball in their hands and a chance to take yet another step – this time against No. 7 seed Wichita State (30-4) in a Midwest Regional semifinal — toward history.
“Once we step on the court, it’s all about winning,” Irish senior guard Jerian Grant said. “Anything we need to do to win, we block everything else out and we play for each other.”
Grant insists it really is that easy to separate everything the Irish have done up until Thursday (7:15 p.m., CBS) at Quicken Loans Arena. Once gametime arrives, nothing else matters. Not the seven straight wins. Not the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship. Not all the success that Wichita State has racked up the last few years.
Nothing but the here and the now.
“Once you step on the court, it’s about the game,” Grant said. “It’s about winning. You’re not thinking about anything else except for making that next play.”
Advancing last weekend out of Pittsburgh with second- and third-round victories over Northeastern and Butler didn’t allow No. 3 seed Notre Dame (31-5) to feel all that satisfied about extending its season another week. As good as Notre Dame was in western Pennsylvania, the Irish know they need to be better Thursday. They need 40 complete minutes on both ends. Good on offense. Good on defense. Good from the start of the game, in the middle of the game and at the end of the game.
An Irish offense that averaged 78.2 points per game this season managed only 69 and 67 last weekend. An Irish defense that was good enough to get stops in the closing seconds of regulation in each game, including three in the final five seconds of regulation against Butler, still wasn’t good enough at other times to keep double-digit leads from also getting away.
Notre Dame knows it needs a complete game, similar to the one it unleashed 13 days ago to beat Duke to advance out of the ACC tournament semifinal. Right from the jump that night in Greensboro, the Irish were really good. They drove the ball through the heart of the defense. They were aggressive. They defended. They were fearless.
Thursday may require a similar effort.
“The whole season has prepared us for a game like this,” said sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson. “We want to keep playing.”
Wichita State is a veteran group that has built its program on determination and defense. Two years ago, a core that includes guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet advanced to the Final Four. The Shockers entered last season’s NCAA tournament undefeated before being beaten by Kentucky. The Irish have played this season with some serious swagger. The Shockers also have it. A lot of it.
“They’ve been here before,” Grant said. “They’ve been around; they know how to win.
“We’re definitely going to have to bring our ‘A’ game.”
It was a hectic few days back in Indiana for the Irish, who returned early Sunday afternoon from Pittsburgh. Two days of classes and two days of practices followed before Notre Dame boarded a charter bus Tuesday evening for the three-plus hour trip to northeast Ohio. Once the mandatory media obligations were met Wednesday afternoon, it was back to concentrating on basketball. Everything they had done to that point could be flushed, which is exactly the way the Irish preferred it.
Nothing else matters now.