Notre Dame earns No. 1 seed in Chicago

Anthony Anderson I Tribune Correspondent
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

Notre Dame — and all of the women’s college basketball world — had to adjust on the fly Monday afternoon after the majority of the NCAA Tournament pairings were inadvertently revealed by ESPN almost four hours early.

Fortunately for the Irish, that surprise didn’t lead to any other surprises.

As expected, Notre Dame was installed as the No. 1 seed in the Chicago Region.

The defending national champions (30-3) host No. 16 seed and first-time NCAA Tourney qualifier Bethune-Cookman (21-10) in an 11 a.m. game Saturday at Purcell Pavilion.

If the Irish win, as an overall top-16 seed they’ll also be home for the second round next Monday against the survivor of No. 8 seed Central Michigan (25-7) vs. No. 9 Michigan State (20-11). The Chippewas and Spartans face off in Saturday’s second game at Purcell.

The time for Monday’s contest will be determined Saturday.

Then it’s on to Chicago for the middle two rounds, March 30 and April 1, in the quest to reach the Final Four in Tampa, Fla.

Notre Dame, about an hour into a scheduled two-hour practice Monday, was informed by a team official around 4:45 p.m. that most of the bracket had accidentally been revealed by ESPN, and that the network would be televising the full pairings at 5 p.m. rather than at 7.

The Irish ended their practice and were informed of their own tourney path before quickly showering and heading upstairs to the team’s watch party.

“It kind of took the fun out of it a little bit,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said, “(but) for me it took the anxiety out of it, so that was a good thing.”

“It was sort of irresponsible by ESPN,” senior guard Marina Mabrey said, “but it’s not really that big of a deal to me. I feel like the brackets were pretty much set.

“A lot of people knew where they were going, but it probably stinks for the teams that were on the bubble to not be able to find out (through TV, with live look-ins to various watch parties),”

Mabrey added. “Hopefully, they’ll fix that.”

During a program on ESPNU discussing the men’s tournament, graphics of the women’s pairings began flashing around 3:15 p.m., with social media then quick to spread the word.

“We deeply regret the error and and extend our apology to the NCAA and the women’s basketball community,” ESPN said in a statement.

“It was crazy,” Notre Dame forward Brianna Turner said of how events unfolded. “That would never happen on the men’s side, but we’re excited about our region.”

The Irish are joined as the No. 1 seeds by overall top seed Baylor, being routed through the Greensboro (N.C.) Region, fellow Atlantic Coast Conference member Louisville in the Albany (N.Y.) Region and Mississippi State in the Portland Region.

Some bracketologists were stunned by Louisville getting a 1 seed ahead of Connecticut, which was installed as the No. 2 in Albany.

That ended the Huskies’ run of being seeded No. 1 at 12 years — and left Notre Dame as the program with the longest active streak of No. 1 seeds at eight years.

The winners from the Chicago and Albany regions meet in one of the Friday, April 5, national semifinals, with the Greensboro and Portland survivors matched up in the other semi. The national championship is Monday, April 7.

Stanford checks in as the No. 2 seed in the Chicago Region, with Iowa State No. 3 and Texas A&M No. 4.

The Irish, meanwhile, check in as one of the nation’s hottest teams, with nine straight victories, all by at least 18 points and five of those over ranked clubs.

“We are playing great basketball right now,” McGraw said. “I think all five of our starters are playing right to their potential. I think they’re doing everything they can do. We’re playing well as a team, our chemistry’s terrific, we’re even playing a little better defensively. I love the way we’re rebounding, but our offense has really been on a roll.”

After winning the ACC Tournament, the players were given six days off for spring break, then returned to practice Sunday from various vacation spots.

“I was really thrilled,” McGraw said of how her team handled the time away. “A week off is a long time, but they needed to recharge mentally and physically They came back, and I was happy to see they’d all been in the gym at some point. You could really tell.”

“I think it was good for us to be able to leave for spring break, kind of get that little time away before we’re super-focused on the tournament,” said Turner, who went home to the Houston area and took in a rodeo as part of her break. “We have a week now. We don’t play for another five days, so I think we’re ready to focus this week.”

Notre Dame heads into the NCAA Tourney prepared by a schedule ranked No. 1 in the nation by most metrics, including RPI.

More than half of ND’s games this season have come against fellow clubs that made the tournament field. The Irish are 15-3 in those games, including 8-1 against teams that are top-four seeds.

Bethune-Cookman, from Daytona Beach, Fla., heads into Saturday’s first-ever meeting against Notre Dame off winning the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament.

The Wildcats have faced just one Associated Press Top 25 team this year, losing 88-39 at then-No. 21 South Florida in mid-November.

Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw, left, hopes to have plenty more high-five moments in the coming weeks.
During her time away last week, Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner returned home to the Houston area and took in a rodeo.