Notre Dame prepares for an Elite Eight matchup with No. 1 Kentucky
Brian Hartnett | Saturday, March 28, 2015
Notre Dame is no stranger to tough competition.
The Irish (32-5) own an 8-1 record against teams that reached the Sweet 16 and have wins over three teams already moving on to the Elite Eight.
But for the No. 3 seed Irish to win the Midwest Regional tonight and advance to their first Final Four since 1978, they will have to beat No. 1 seed Kentucky, a team that held the top ranking in the nation all season and is looking to become the first team to end a season undefeated since Indiana did it in 1976.
The task facing Notre Dame is difficult, but one that’s not unprecedented for the Irish, senior guard Jerian Grant said.
“From the outside, looking in, obviously they’re undefeated,” he said of the Wildcats (37-0). “They beat teams pretty badly, but as a group we don’t really look at it like that. We’ve played against some great teams this year, and we’re extremely confident going in, so we don’t really look at it.
“Obviously, it’s going to be an upset if we do win, but at the end of the day it’s not David versus Goliath. We have a lot of confidence going in.”
The Elite Eight matchup will feature a Notre Dame team that is the top 2-point shooting team in the nation and second in effective field-goal percentage nationally, according to KenPom.com, against a Kentucky team that has the second-best scoring defense nationally, limiting opponents to 53.5 points per game and a 34.8 percent shooting percentage.
“It’s going to be harder for us to flow,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “We’re the most efficient offensive team in the country. They’re the best defensive team in the country.
“I think it’s exciting to see how this thing plays out over 40 minutes.”
Both teams displayed their strengths in convincing ways during Thursday’s Sweet 16. The Irish shot 75 percent from the field in the second half to pull away from Wichita State and earn an 81-70 victory, while Kentucky limited West Virginia to 24.1 percent field-goal shooting in a 78-39 rout.
Grant said he expects the quality of play to be just as high in Saturday’s matchup.
“I think obviously we’re going to have to bring our ‘A’ game, but against a team like Kentucky, it’s not just going to be the guards, it’s really going to have to be everybody to bring their ‘A’ game,” he said. “As much as we want to play well as guards, it’s going to have to be the whole team playing well.”
Notre Dame’s frontcourt, made up of the 6-foot-10 junior forward Zach Auguste, 6-foot-5 senior forward Pat Connaughton and 6-foot-5 freshman forward Bonzie Colson, will face a Kentucky interior featuring four players who are 6-foot-10 or taller, including leading rebounder freshman forward Karl Anthony Towns and junior forward Willie Cauley-Stein.
Despite the height disparity, the Irish plan to stick to the strategies that have made them successful, Connaughton said.
“I don’t think we’re going to change our game plan,” he said. “I don’t think doubling down [on forwards] is something that we’re necessarily going to do because you’ve got to box them out, and you’ve got to be in position to box them out. I think that’s the biggest key.
“ … We have to stick to our game plan, stick to our defense and run them off the 3-point line and focus extremely hard on the defensive rebounding. That’s going to be, in my opinion, what this game comes down to.”
Brey said another key to the game will be starting fast, something the Irish were able to do in their Sweet 16 matchup as well as in ACC tournament games against Duke and North Carolina.
“One of the things we’ve talked about in the postseason, starting in Greensboro, is getting off to good starts, and we have been getting off to great starts,” Brey said. “You get off to a good start against Duke in Greensboro, maybe you can get this thing. You get off to a good start against North Carolina — you get off to a good start against Kentucky in here [Saturday], okay, we’ve got a shot at this thing.”
Notre Dame has beaten eight No. 1 teams in program history, the last coming against Syracuse on Jan. 21, 2012.
“I know Jerian and myself were first-year players when we were able to knock off Syracuse when they were undefeated and ranked No. 1, but at the same time, something that I and this team has preached on the whole year is that we’ve kind of been writing our own history, doing things the Notre Dame basketball program hasn’t done in a long time and/or ever,” Connaughton said. “So as much as you look back, you’ve got to still be in the present time and know that you’re going at this, it’s completely different.”
For the Irish to add a Final Four to a season résumé that already includes 32 wins, an ACC tournament title, the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2003 and first Elite Eight berth since 1979, they will have to defy the odds once more, Auguste said.
“We’re not really concerned about Kentucky; we’re concerned about Notre Dame,” he said. “It’s funny because not a lot of people give us a chance. Where we are right now, we made a lot of steps to get to where we are through a lot of motivation and determination that we have had in the offseason.”
Notre Dame and Kentucky will meet in the Midwest Regional final tonight at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. Tipoff is scheduled for 8:49 p.m.