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Facing Cinderella

Chris Khorey | Thursday, March 20, 2008

For the second straight year, Notre Dame suffers a severe deficit of Tournament experience relative to its first-round NCAA Tournament opponent.

The No. 5 seed Irish, who lost the only game they played in the Big Dance in the last four years, take on No. 12 seed George Mason in the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colo., today in the first round of the NCAA’s East Regional.

In 2006, as a No. 11 seed, the Patriots made a surprising run all the way to the Final Four. Their Cinderella run created a new college basketball tradition – pundits now start searching for “This Year’s George Mason” as early as December.

According to many, last year’s “This Year’s George Mason” was Winthrop, the small South Carolina college that has been a perennial favorite in the Big South conference.

The Eagles, a No. 11 seed, also happened to be Notre Dame’s first round opponent. They beat the Irish 74-64 before losing in the second round.

One year later, the Irish are determined to erase the memories of losing to “This Year’s George Mason” by defeating this year’s George Mason.

“You get there and you settle in and you go to practice and then you’re playing and you lose and its over,” Irish forward Zach Hillesland said of the loss to Winthrop. “That was not a good feeling, especially because you play your whole season to build that resume and get to the tournament.”

This year’s George Mason

The Patriots followed up their national semifinal appearance by missing the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

This season, they went 23-10 and won the Colonial Athletic Association championship with a 68-59 win over William & Mary on March 10.

George Mason still features seven players with Final Four experience and is still coached by Jim Larranga, who is now in his 11th season with the school.

“We know the run that they made a couple years ago,” Irish guard Kyle McAlarney said. “This is the NCAA Tournament. We have to look at them like a Big East team.”

The Patriots are led by senior forward Will Thomas, who, at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds, will probably match up with Big East player of the year Luke Harangody in the low post.

As a sophomore, Thomas was second in rebounding and fourth in scoring on the Final Four team. This season, he is George Mason’s leading rebounder with 10.5 per game and second leading scorer with 15.8 points per game.

The leading scorer for the Patriots this season is senior guard Folarin Campbell, who pours in 15.9 points per game. At 6-foot-4, Campbell presents match-up problems for Notre Dame’s shorter guards, so Hillesland or junior guard Ryan Ayers will probably guard him.

George Mason shoots just 35 percent from 3-point range as a team, but they make up for it by getting the ball inside to Thomas inside or by Campbell getting into the lane off the dribble.

The Patriots have played three “power” conference teams this season. They defeated Kansas State and South Carolina and lost to Villanova.

This year’s Notre Dame

One year ago, Notre Dame was walking off the court in Spokane, Wash., having just seen its season end abruptly after the loss to Winthrop.

“We had to think about it all offseason and it’s something that has driven us all season long,” senior captain Rob Kurz said.

None of the players on the Notre Dame roster had played in the NCAA Tournament prior to last season. This season, Kurz said, the Irish are much more prepared for the atmosphere.

“We learned a lot from last year, like how to prepare mentally better,” Kurz said. “Having gone through the experience, we know what to expect now. I think that’s a big key for us.”

Although seven current Notre Dame players saw time in the Winthrop game last year, one who didn’t was guard Kyle McAlarney. McAlarney was suspended for the spring semester last season for possession of marijuana.

McAlarney said while the NCAA Tournament might be old hat for his teammates, he will try to enjoy his first Big Dance.

“I’m just going to go out there and have fun and go for it,” McAlarney said. “That’s all I really can do.”

Another thing that’s new for the Irish this season is the emergence of Harangody, who scored just four points against the Eagles last season. This year, the sophomore is averaging 20.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.

For much of the season, Notre Dame was among the top teams in the nation in rebounding margin, but the Irish have struggled on the boards of late, even getting out-rebounded 40-34 by guard-heavy Marquette in their loss in the Big East quarterfinals.

“We have to get back to what we’ve been doing on the boards,” sophomore point guard Tory Jackson said. “In January we dominated on the boards. We have to get back to doing that again.”

Rocky Mountain High

In addition to each other, Notre Dame and George Mason will also have to contend with the altitude in Denver, where the thin air makes strenuous exercise difficult on the lungs.

To try to get used to the mountain air, the Irish left Monday night to try to get two practices in Colorado.

Hillesland dismissed the notion that the altitude will affect the game.

“Everyone has to adjust to it,” he said. “It’s not going to be a factor.”

Jackson, however, said he has heard horror stories about playing at altitude.

“I heard that if you run up and down the court a couple times, you’ll pass out,” he said.

“I’m kind of scared.”

The sophomore point guard added that he hopes Notre Dame is in better shape, so that George Mason passes out before the Irish.

“I feel like it might an advantage because they might pass out before we do,” he said.

Looking ahead

The winner of Notre Dame and George Mason will take on the winner of Washington State and Winthrop on Saturday.

The Cougars are a slow-paced, defensive team that finished third in the Pac-10, and averaged 67.1 points per game offensively and only gave up 57.1 points per game. By contrast, the Irish score 80.6 points per game and give up 70.5 points.

The Eagles won their fourth straight Big South title and will try to pick off their second straight higher seed in the first round of the NCAAs. If they do, Notre Dame will get a shot at revenge from last year.

But according to Kurz, Notre Dame is only focusing on the Patriots.

“We have to play fearlessly like we’ve been playing all year,” he said.