CLEVELAND – From the outside looking in, what awaits Notre Dame as it prepares for its first NCAA tournament regional final since 1979 is a chance to make an impossible run at history and beat a team that many believe simply cannot be beaten.
From the inside looking out, a confident Irish locker room of veteran guys sporting some serious swagger after having won eight in a row and 11 of the last 12 sees it as just another game to get, another puzzle to solve, and the chance to enjoy another Saturday of success.
Undefeated and top-ranked Kentucky aside, Notre Dame approaches Saturday’s Midwest Regional championship game at Quicken Loans Arena (8:49 p.m., TBS) as simply another test somewhere along Tobacco Road in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It’s all the same, only the names of the front of the jerseys have changed. Time to do what the Irish do.
“We feel like we have the best team,” said assistant coach Martin Ingelsby. “And they have the best talent.”
Many expect the talent to win out and win out easily. The odds and the opponent may be long, but the Irish believe they can ball with the nation’s best and put themselves in position to go to the Final Four for the first time since 1978.
Few give the Irish a chance. Except the Irish.
“Our confidence is through the roof,” said junior power forward Zach Auguste. “This is probably the most important game of our careers. We know we can win.”
Confidence is high because of surviving and thriving this season in the ACC. Notre Dame has stood with North Carolina, and won twice. It took Duke’s best shot three times, and won twice. It’s been in tough games and won. It’s been down, particularly in this tournament, and still have found a way to figure it all out.
“We’re more battle-tested that them,” said Ingelsby, whose job it was to formulate the Kentucky scouting report. “We’ve been in bigger games on a bigger stage. This is a great opportunity for us. We’re going to have fun with it.”
Preparing for Kentucky (37-0) was more Notre Dame (32-5) worrying about what it can do rather than what the other guys might do. That’s par for the college basketball scouting course this time of year – make the other guys adjust to your best. Expect their best, be at yours.
Ingelsby spent some of the previous two weeks watching various Kentucky tape and took in Thursday’s wipeout of West Virginia. The Irish have an idea on how they best want to approach Saturday from a strategy standpoint, though everything could be scrapped early as Notre Dame gauges exactly what works and what doesn’t.
A veteran team knows how to adjust on the fly and scrap A, B and C in favor of D, E and F if needed.
“We might not know until the 12-minute mark of the first half what works, what’s successful,” Ingelsby said. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel or do anything crazy.”
“This is a whole different monster with their size and length and ability,” Ingelsby said of Kentucky's top 10 players, including six 6-foot-9 or taller.
Kentucky hasn’t faced a team as offensively efficient as Notre Dame all season, but coach John Calipari didn’t plan on spending every waking hour breaking down tape of how Notre Dame blitzed Wichita State for 48 points on 75 percent shooting in Thursday’s second half. As is his custom, Calipari would watch tape of the previous five Irish games. The Wildcats then will be shown a loop of Irish highlights during Saturday’s pre-game meal. Ten minutes of clips is it.
After that, it’s time to go to work.
“I want them worried about us,” Calipari said of his team. “This is going to be a hard game.”
Hard because Notre Dame’s ability to run good offense will keep his guys guessing – particularly his bigs who will have to guard smaller, quicker, craftier guys. Guards Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson will have play-making opportunities off either screen-roll or drive-and-kick/finish situations. But it’s a tricky test. Kentucky dares teams to venture into the lane where a host of size and shot-blockers await. Decisions must be made quickly. Cleanly. Confidently.
Doing so – and kicking to perimeter shooters — will force the Wildcats’ massive front line to move their feet, or they’ll take a seat.
“If you give up a 3, you’re coming out,” Calipari said of the marching orders for his bigs. “You hold them to a standard – this is how we play.”
This also is how Kentucky plays – Kentucky guards. The Wildcats enter the Midwest Regional final ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring margin (+21.3) and field goal percentage defense (34.8). The Wildcats ae second in scoring defense (53.5 ppg.), blocks per game (6.9), 3-point field goal percentage defense (26.7), total blocks (255) and total rebounds (1,439).
Notre Dame may play flawlessly for stretches. It may be flawed in others. In the end, it may not be anywhere near good enough, but the Irish know there’s only way to find out – embrace the opportunity and compete.
Coming close simply is not acceptable. Notre Dame believes it has been building toward this moment for weeks. Even years. There is no moral victory. Anywhere. Irish coach Mike Brey simply isn’t ready to walk into the locker room after 40 more minutes and realize the college careers of seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant are over.
Brey still carries himself as the loosest coach in America. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe. In the game plan. In his team. In this moment. In his team’s time.
“We’ll be very disappointed,” Brey said, “if we don’t win.”