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Men’s Basketball Commentary: New-look Irish a safe bet in opening round

Matt Gamber | Thursday, March 18, 2010

It’s always tough to handicap the NCAA Tournament chances of “your” team, and I’ve especially never been good at separating what I hope will happen from what I think will happen.

So, naturally, I’m heading to New Orleans this weekend with the mindset that the Irish will advance to the Sweet 16. With the way Notre Dame has played over the last few weeks, though, it doesn’t feel like I’m making the homer pick.

Watching this Irish team, you can’t help but see a gutsy group that clawed its way back into the NCAA Tournament by playing its best basketball without its best player — and then showed its versatility by reintegrating that player back into the lineup when he was ready.

A month ago, it looked like Notre Dame had a better shot at a No. 6 seed in the NIT than in the NCAA Tournament. After their double-overtime loss at Louisville on Feb. 17 dropped the Irish to 6-8 in the Big East, it looked unlikely Notre Dame could reach the 9-9 record that Irish coach Mike Brey traditionally sets as the bar for NCAA considerations.

Considering the opponents — Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Connecticut and Marquette — it would have taken an incredibly improbable run for a team that hadn’t won three straight Big East games all season.

Sure enough, the Irish won six in a row — four against tournament teams — and jumped all the way to a No. 6 seed.

I’ll admit I declared this team dead right after the Louisville loss, and I didn’t even watch the upset over Pittsburgh a week later — give me a break, it was midterms week.

But after the Irish went on the road and pulled another upset at Georgetown the next Friday, I couldn’t help but feel like something special was going to happen. I had never seen a Notre Dame team play with the discipline and patience it did in that game, and hearing Brey talk about his team’s new approach, it sounded like the Irish were going to stick with it — with or without Harangody.

Connecticut turned out to be the worst team (by final record) during the six-game stretch, but Notre Dame’s March 3 victory over the Huskies was the most impressive.

With the student section rejuvenated and NCAA Tournament hopes revived, the Irish didn’t disappoint despite falling behind by double digits in the first half.

Everything seemed to go right for Notre Dame in the earlier victories over Pittsburgh and Georgetown, but it was clear from the get-go the Connecticut game wouldn’t be pretty. In the past, the Irish might have folded, but they kept grinding away, held the Huskies to 35 percent shooting and pulled out a huge victory.

These are the kind of games teams need to win to post a sustained NCAA run, and we saw the same kind of game from the Irish in their Big East semifinal loss to West Virginia.

Notre Dame had no business being in that game at the end — it couldn’t defend the Mountaineers’ De’Sean Butler, and Ben Hansbrough was the only Notre Dame player who could get anything going offensively. I kept waiting for the Irish to disappear down the stretch, but they kept plugging away, to the point that Tory Jackson had a decent look at a game-winning shot.

From watching the NCAA Tournament, you know teams that make deep runs don’t often have a smooth ride the whole way. But judging from their play in recent weeks, the Irish have what it takes to handle the adversity they’ll have to conquer if they want to advance out of New Orleans this weekend.