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Basketball fans mad for tourney

Megan Doyle and Sam Stryker | Thursday, March 10, 2011

As March Madness approaches and the Irish anticipate their tournament experience, some Notre Dame students will forfeit sunny afternoons at the beach for the lights of Madison Square Garden over their Spring Break.

The No. 4 Notre Dame men’s basketball team begins its quest for a championship in the Big East Conference tournament tonight as they square off against Cincinnati at 7 p.m. in New York. The quarterfinal game marks the next step in the team’s journey to a championship season.

If the team wins tonight, the Irish will play again in a semifinal game at 9 p.m. Friday evening.

Sophomore Mickey Gardella said he could not remember the last time he missed the Big East tournament.

“My dad and I go every year,” he said. “I have been an ND fan my whole life so we always try to go to some of those games … but we see other teams play as well.”

Gardella, a New Jersey native, will travel home for spring break Friday. If Notre Dame wins Thursday evening, he will join the Leprechaun Legion at 9 p.m. Friday to cheer on the team in the semifinals. 

The Notre Dame contingent in New York is typically smaller than at a home game in the Purcell Pavilion, Gardella said.

“It’s not the atmosphere of a home game here but it is still a high level of basketball,” he said. “Usually we are outnumbered in terms of fans … but it is still a great experience.”

Notre Dame students from the surrounding area and members of the band typically join the stands to support the team as they play for the Big East title.

“We had a great finish to the year, and we are very hot right now,” he said. “But we don’t know what will happen.”

The depth of the Big East Conference could help the team handle the heat of NCAA tournament competition, Gardella said.

“I think that would help us against a team like BYU or San Diego State that has not played the schedule we have,” he said.

Junior Andrew Fessler said his pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament is also an annual tradition.

“I used to go a lot when I was younger,” he said. “I’ve been going to one or two games a year for as long as I can remember.”

Fessler said the Notre Dame basketball team would enter the tournament with a different vibe this year than in seasons past.

“I’ve always been a big Notre Dame fan and expected them to do well, even though they haven’t always been good,” he said. “The difference is this year everyone expects them to do well, not just me.”

This particular tournament is special for Fighting Irish fans because of high expectations for the team this year, Fessler said.

“It is really important to the fans because they have never done that well in the Big East tournament, so this year is exciting,” he said.

Fessler said the performance of the basketball team in the Big East tournament will dictate how well the Fighting Irish play in the NCAA championship.

“It’s always important because we’re going against other top ranked teams,” he said. “It really impacts who we play in the tournament.”

The team’s success during the regular season should attract a larger fan base to Madison Square Garden, Fessler said.

“Usually the teams that had more fans were from the area, like Syracuse or Saint Johns. They are obviously closer for a fan commute,” he said. “Most of the schools are closer than Notre Dame, but Notre Dame has a national fan base that other Big East teams don’t have.”

After the Big East tournament comes to a close Saturday evening, Notre Dame will turn its attention to the NCAA tournament. The March Madness first round schedule will be determined March 12, and tournament games begin March 15.

Sophomore Lauren Rasch said though she will not be attending the Big East tournament, she is excited to watch the competition over her Spring Break.

“I’d like to [watch some games]. I’ll be with my dad. He is an alum so he is excited to watch the games with me,” she said.

Rasch said she is more excited for this year’s tournament because of how successful the Fighting Irish have been in the regular season.

“I guess we’re fair-weather fans,” she said.

Notre Dame needs to do well in the competitive Big East tournament in order to set the tone for the rest of the championship season, Rasch said.

“We need to do well so that we will continue having momentum,” she said. “We’re the number two seed, so hopefully we will do well and meet and exceed expectations, and continue.”

Rasch said she has high expectations for the Fighting Irish this spring, both in the Big East tournament and the NCAA championship.

“I think we will do well. I think we expect them to win some games,” she said. “It would be really exciting to win the whole thing.”

Rasch said the Notre Dame student body seems more excited for the basketball team than in years past.

“I’ll walk into [LaFortune Student Center] and there will be games on and there will be a big group crowded around cheering,” she said. ” [There are] a lot of Leprechaun Legion T-shirts around.”