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Irish earn No. 2 seed in Chicago

Eric Prister | Sunday, March 13, 2011

When the NCAA selection committee released the four No. 1 seeds for this year’s NCAA tournament, Notre Dame’s name was not on the list. But for the No. 2-seeded Irish, the numbers no longer matter as they prepare to take on No. 15-seeded Akron in Chicago Friday.

“I think we had a lot of an argument for a one [seed] quite frankly, when you look at our résumé, but we’re thrilled we’re a two,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We earned that. It’s great being in Chicago, but at this point, just erase the numbers now and look at the matchups. One of the things I told our team was that, ‘two years ago, we played in the ‘Chicago Invitational’ and we went 1-1. This ‘Chicago Invitational’ we’d like to go 2-0.’

“There’s so much talk about projections and matchups down the road, but we have a Big East kind of matchup in Chicago on Friday, and that’s our mindset this week in practice.”

The Irish head into the tournament after a disappointing loss in the semifinal game of the Big East tournament to Louisville, which earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Brey said that while he is still somewhat upset about the loss, he thinks his team has bounced back and will be ready for a good week of practice leading up to the matchup with Akron.

“One of the things this group has done has stayed pretty hungry all year,” he said. “After big wins, they’ve come back in a pretty even-keeled demeanor and asked, ‘what do we do to get ready for the next one?’ And after losses, I feel like we’ve had our best practices and that’s kind of the mode we’re in now.

“I think for our guys, there’s probably a little bit of unfinished business, not getting to [the Big East tournament final] Saturday, because we really invested in that, emotionally and physically. We knew we were going to be a high seed, and we knew we were going to be in Chicago, and you take it from there. Certainly this group has played well when they’ve had a little chip, so if they’ve developed it, that’s great.”

Irish senior guard Ben Hansbrough said the chip comes not only from their performance in the Big East tournament, but also from their first-round loss to Old Dominion in last year’s NCAA tournament.

“[The loss to Louisville] was obviously one of the tougher losses for me here at Notre Dame, but it’s also on to the next [game],” Hansbrough said. “I think one of my jobs as a leader of this team is to get this team ready for the NCAA tournament. I think we’ll do that by bouncing back from a loss.

“[Losing in the first round last year has] been our motivation all year. I think we’re going to go into here playing with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder.”

Akron earned its bid to the NCAA tournament by winning the MAC tournament Saturday, defeating Kent State 66-65 in overtime. Keith Dambrot coaches the Zips. Dambrot coached Miami Heat forward LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in Akron, Ohio before joining the program. Junior forward Nikola Cvetinovic leads the Zips in both scoring and rebounding.

“We are playing a league champion,” Brey said. “We’re playing a team that’s just cut down nets Saturday night that feels it’s their time. So we’re very aware of the vibe around the Akron team right now. I lived that at times when I was the coach at Delaware. There’s nothing like getting the bid from a one-bid league. There is no pressure like trying to win the bid in a one-bid league. We did that two of my last three years at Delaware, and I don’t know if there’s a more gratifying feeling. For Akron to dog-fight their way through there, and they were a lower seed, and to get it, I think that says a lot about their resiliency and their toughness and their leadership from their coach.”

But for the Irish, it all comes down to playing their best game each time they step on the court.

“All that stuff goes out the window,” senior forward Tyrone Nash said. “Once they come out with the numbers and all that, that all goes out the window, because you have to win games regardless of who you play. Every team in the tournament is good, or else they wouldn’t be there, so we have to go out and give our best shot to everyone, because they’re going to come out and give their best shots to us.”

Notre Dame and Akron tip off Friday at 1:40 Eastern Time at the United Center.