Notre Dame to face Wisconsin in Sweet 16
Alex Carson | Wednesday, March 23, 2016
We almost got it a year ago.
Had Jerian Grant’s final-second 3-point attempt hit, rather than missed, Notre Dame and Wisconsin would have met in the Final Four.
And while things are different for both schools this year — there’s no Grant or Sam Dekker, Frank Kaminsky or Pat Connaughton — we’ll get the matchup in Friday’s Sweet 16 in Philadelphia.
Having to follow in the footsteps of last year’s team might have been difficult at times, but Irish head coach Mike Brey said he was proud of this Irish squad for securing consecutive Sweet 16 appearances for the first time since the 1970s.
“This is a group that always wanted to distance themselves from last year’s team and have their own identity,” Brey said. “And I give them a lot of credit because last year’s team had no expectations after going 15-17, they could just play and develop and everything they did was gravy last year.
“This group had that hanging on their shoulder the whole time and to get to this point, fighting through that and having some tough times … I give them a lot of credit, and I give a lot of credit to our leadership.”
But while the No. 6-seeded Irish (23-11, 11-7 ACC) don’t have Grant or Connaughton this go-around, each of the squad’s five double-digit scorers was a rotation player during the Elite Eight run last season — and junior guard Demetrius Jackson said that experience benefits Notre Dame most in crunch time.
“A big point for us where [our experience] will show is in game situations,” Jackson said. “In that final four minutes, we understand how key it is to be able to execute and a lot of the games will come down to the final four minutes, just how efficient you can be and how many stops you can get.”
While Notre Dame has spent the whole season firmly in the NCAA tournament picture, the seventh-seeded Badgers (22-12, 12-6 Big Ten) were an afterthought after former head coach Bo Ryan announced his retirement on Dec. 16. In mid-January, Wisconsin was .500 overall and just 1-4 in Big Ten play, a team looking more likely to miss the postseason altogether than to burst through to the Sweet 16.
But since then interim, and now permanent, Badgers head coach Greg Gard has led his team to an 11-3 mark, one that saw marquee wins over Michigan State, Indiana, Maryland and Iowa en route to a sixth-place finish in the Big Ten.
While Wisconsin is known nationally for playing at a slow, deliberate pace — it ranks 345th out of 351 teams in tempo — Brey was quick to point out his Irish also enjoy a slow game.
“I’ll give you a stat that no one thinks: They’re averaging 62 possessions a game in the NCAA tournament, we’re averaging 60,” Brey said. “Everyone thinks we’re this track meet. … We’re grinding too.”
That said, Brey said the Irish started searching for transition scores during their last five outings.
“We are pushing that thing up the floor and looking for some early buckets,” Brey said. “And that helped us in both games in Brooklyn.”
Just as Notre Dame advanced to the Sweet 16 by winning close games, so too did the Badgers: Wisconsin beat No. 10 seed Pittsburgh 47-43 before upsetting second-seeded Xavier on Sunday, 66-63.
“Both teams are finding ways to win, just believing that they can do it,” Brey said. “It’s interesting how we both got here.”
Just five days after facing No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin’s defensive pressure, the Irish will face another strong defensive team — just one with a different philosophy.
“They try to keep you out of the lane,” junior forward V.J. Beachem said. “They’re not trying to deny so much on the wings and things like that, but [they’re] keeping you out of the lane and keeping you from getting easy shots.”
Beachem played with Badgers junior forward Nigel Hayes, his team’s leading scorer, in AAU basketball during high school, but says the two aren’t on speaking terms this week.
“We’ve talked a lot, especially this year,” Beachem said. “ … I’m not gonna be talking to him [this week] until probably right before the game.”
And while Notre Dame benefits from a second-straight upset with Stephen F. Austin shocking third-seeded West Virginia and then Wisconsin’s victory over Xavier, Jackson pointed out that everyone left at this stage can play.
“They’re a really great team — from here on out, we’re gonna be playing great teams,” Jackson said. “We have to be great to advance. So far, what we know about them is really how disciplined they are on both ends of the floor, defensively and offensively.”
And if this Irish team really wants to distance itself from last year’s Elite Eight team, winning two more games and reaching the program’s second-ever Final Four would more than likely do the trick.
“[The Elite Eight is] something that we want to reach and surpass this year,” senior forward Zach Auguste said. “For me individually, as a senior, I don’t want the last game to be until the championship game.”
Tipoff between Notre Dame and Wisconsin is set for 7:27 p.m. Friday from Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center.