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Irish poised for deep NCAA run

Fran Tolan | Thursday, March 20, 2008

It’s time to get back to work.

After dispatching most of their Big East regular-season opponents in business-like fashion, the Irish should get the job done this weekend in the NCAA Tournament.

But that doesn’t mean Notre Dame has an easy road ahead of it. After the Irish finished in a tie for second place in the conference, they were “rewarded” with a trip to a city two time zones away to take on a George Mason team that knows a few things about winning in March Madness. If they take care of the Patriots, the Irish will then likely take on either Washington State or Winthrop.

The players know they can’t mention where the Irish would head if they could notch two wins in Denver, but Notre Dame fans can speculate. If the team is still on its feet for the Sweet Sixteen, the Irish would earn another cross-country trip, this time to take on North Carolina in its backyard in Charlotte, N.C.

The potential matchup with the Tar Heels might not really seem like a reward for the players but that would be plenty of fun for fans. Can’t you just imagine a sweaty, wide-eyed Dick Vitale going hoarse while talking about a Harangody-Hansbrough matchup? “It’s the Sweet Sixteen. It’s the two best big men in the country, baby!”

I’m giddy just thinking about it. If the Irish take care of business this weekend, they will find themselves in one of the biggest games in program history.

I know I’m getting ahead of myself. But not as ahead as you might think – expect the Irish to come out on fire this weekend. The Colorado air might not help Notre Dame’s offense like it does baseball hitters but that doesn’t matter. Luke Harangody has had a week to think about his early foul trouble and a 13-point finish in the team’s early exit in the Big East tournament. That’s in addition to the meager four points and one rebound he posted in last year’s one-and-done in the Big Dance.

“I wish the game could come a lot sooner than Thursday,” Harangody said.

So despite sleeping in an unfamiliar bed for a few nights, the Irish big man should be even more intense than usual in the first round. George Mason is a physical squad but its frontcourt won’t be able to hang with Notre Dame’s. A potential second-round matchup with Washington State or even Winthrop would be a bigger test for the Irish but it would also be a good warm-up for a contest with you-know-who.

The Irish know what’s at stake this year. They are no longer the wide-eyed Tournament rookies they admitted to being last year.

“We’re here to do a lot more than we did last year,” Harangody said.

The Irish haven’t played since their early exit from the Big East tournament.

They’re eager to get back to work.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Fran Tolan at ftolan@nd.edu.