Notre Dame hoops embraces Elite Eight moment

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

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.”

But….

“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.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton, Steve Vasturia, Zach Auguste and Jerian Grant joke around after a press conference Friday in Cleveland. The Irish take on No. 1 seed Kentucky on Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena.SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

NCAA Tournament

Midwest Region

Championship

WHO: No. 3 seed Notre Dame (32-5 overall, 14-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 1 Kentucky (37-0, 18-0 Southeastern Conference).

WHERE: Quicken Loans Arena (20,562), Cleveland.

WHEN: Saturday at 8:49 p.m.

TV: TBS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Kentucky jumped to an 18-2 lead, led 44-18 at halftime and beat West Virginia 78-39 in Thursday’s regional semifinal. The Mountaineers were held to 18.2 percent shooting in the first half and 24.1 percent for the game as Kentucky became the first team in NCAA history to get to 37-0. … The Wildcats have an NCAA-best 2,177 career victories. … Kentucky also has NCAA tournament victories over Hampton, and Cincinnati … Its closest margin of victory this season has been two points against Louisiana State. Kentucky also has overtime victories against Mississippi and Texas A&M. … Kentucky has won 59 of its last 61 games as the nation’s top-ranked team according to the Associated Press. … The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in all 19 AP and USA Today/Coaches polls during the regular season. … Opponents are averaging 53.5 points per game and shooting 34.8 percent from the field, 26.7 percent from 3 against Kentucky this season. … Guard Aaron Harrison leads the Wildcats in scoring at 11.1 per game. … Kentucky has made 35 trips to the Elite Eight with eight national championships. … The Wildcats are 8-0 against ranked teams and 3-0 against Top 10 teams this season. … In his first five seasons at Kentucky, coach John Calipari has had 19 players selected in the NBA draft, including 15 players in the first round. Notre Dame has not had a player selected in the NBA draft since 2002 (Ryan Humphrey). … Kentucky’s roster includes 10 high school All-Americans. … Kentucky leads the all-time series 42-19, including a 29-10 mark in neutral-site games. … Notre Dame won the previous matchup, 64-50, on Nov. 29, 2012. The Irish last won consecutive meetings with the Wildcats in 1988 and 1990. … This is the first NCAA tournament matchup between the teams since a 109-99 Kentucky victory in Columbus, Ohio on March 12, 1970. … Notre Dame has won eight straight games and 11 of its last 12. … The Irish are 8-2 this season against ranked teams, including victories in their last five following Thursday’s 81-70 win over No. 7 seed Wichita State. … Notre Dame looks to advance to its first Final Four since 1978.

WORTH QUOTING: “This group is cruel, and I love it. It’s a great trait. They’re really cruel competitors. When they feel a little blood in the water, they go for it. That’s why they’re special and playing for a regional championship.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.