Notre Dame gets its shot at hoops history

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

CLEVELAND – Professional wrestling can’t script conflict this compelling.

Notre Dame vs. Kentucky.

Good and righteous vs. the Evil Empire.

A basketball program that does it the right way vs. an NBA feeder program.

Made-for-TV mayhem, complete with a villain and a double-digit underdog.

How strange will this be? It’s almost like the hoops version of St. Patrick’s Day. Everyone outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky will be cheering for the Irish Saturday night in their Elite Eight showdown with the Wildcats.

“We are America’s Team (Saturday),” Irish coach Mike Brey said Friday with a smile. “We love it. We’ll take all that support. We’ve got a monumental challenge.”

Normally, just as many sports fans hate Notre Dame as those who bleed blue and gold. But this time, the basketball world has a reason to come together for the common good Saturday.

Kentucky, a team that probably would have already qualified for the playoffs had it played an NBA schedule, is on the cusp of the first undefeated season since Indiana in 1976. That gives Hoosier fans a rooting interest.

But these are the big, bad bullies from Lexington. Coach John Calipari has turned one-and-done into a way of life. Google that term and there will likely be a UK logo next to it.

Since the 2009-10 season, 12 athletes have played one season for Kentucky before leaving for the NBA. Two stuck around for two seasons. And there are a few rookies this year who may already have cleaned out their dorm room.

On the other hand, since 2002, Notre Dame has had just one player (Ryan Humphries) picked in the first round of the NBA draft. Jack Cooley, a free agent, is the only current Irish player in the league.

Of course, Kentucky always has a couple of academic ringers on the end of the bench to boost the team’s graduation rate.

The battle for diplomas is its own unique challenge. Kentucky has a Graduation Success Rate of 89 percent and Federal Graduation Rate (those earning a degree within six years of their freshman year) of 40 percent. Notre Dame is 100 and 79.

Different coaches. Different situations. Vastly different problems.

While one of the mandates placed on Brey is to keep missed classes to a minimum (Notre Dame student-athletes are allowed to miss only three classes on a given day per semester), a focus for Calipari has been to invest in an analytics specialist – to make sure NBA teams know the Wildcats’ nine McDonald’s All-Americans can have their numbers properly interpreted, even though playing time can be limited.

Kentucky has trouble making room for a two-platoon rotation of 10 (with six players 6-foot-9 or taller). The “Iron Irish” go six deep (with 6-10 Zach Auguste the only one over 6-5), maybe seven if 6-8 V.J. Beachem plays better than he did Thursday night.

“Twenty-five years ago, an NBA contract was worth $125,000,” Calipari said. “If you’re in the top 10 picks (now), you’re going to make $25 million in your first deal. Your second deal could be worth another $80 million, and it’s going up.

“Four (players) stayed (this season) that we didn’t expect. Who were the three I was going to leave out (of the rotation)? Or, try to play 10 (and limit playing time and statistics)?”

What to do with a glut of talent?

This is Notre Dame’s chance for a “moment.” Senior guard Jerian Grant sniffed at the suggestion of a David-Goliath slugfest. Too much confidence to be down to a slingshot.

The Irish are playing with house money. Nobody expected this team in the Elite Eight. Final Four? C’mon, that’s a dream. It’s tangible now, though. Forty minutes away. Indianapolis isn’t that far away.

Notre Dame doesn’t have to win a seven-game series from Kentucky. Just 40 minutes. One time.

It’s Mike Brey’s opportunity to carve his niche into Irish lore. It’s the stuff banners are made of.

It’s a game almost everyone would love to see Notre Dame win.

Unleash the pile-driver, and put the bad guys on the mat.

What a great story it could be.

Kentucky head coach John Calipari answers questions during Friday's news conference in Cleveland. AP Photo/MARK DUNCAN