Irish, Bulldogs set for Hoosier-state showdown Saturday night
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, March 20, 2015
Part of what makes the NCAA tournament such a spectacle are the matchups between teams who have no connection to each other.
That won’t be the case tomorrow night in Pittsburgh, when Notre Dame and Butler meet in a Hoosier-state showdown with a trip to the Sweet Sixteen on the line.
“There’s going to be a lot of traffic coming across Ohio tomorrow, isn’t there?” Irish head coach Mike Brey joked Friday.
For No. 3-seed Notre Dame (30-5), the game presents an opportunity to return to a place the Irish haven’t been in 12 years. Since the field was expanded in 1985, Notre Dame has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen just twice: in 1987, when the Irish were knocked out by North Carolina, and in 2003, where they fell to Arizona.
After the 2003 run, Notre Dame failed to make the tournament until 2007 and missed the tournament again in 2009 and last season. When the Irish did make the field, they lost their first game four times and been eliminated in the second round in the other two.
“We’re really determined and focused [to reach the Sweet Sixteen this year],” Irish junior forward Zach Auguste said. “We have a special team this year, and we want to make a statement.”
On the other side of the court, the sixth-seeded Bulldogs (23-10) have reached a pair of national championship games and rode another trip to the Sweet Sixteen since 2007. In 2011, Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot clanged off the rim as time expired, and Butler came up just short against Duke, 61-59, in the championship. The following year the Bulldogs were knocked off by Connecticut in the title game, 53-41.
“We may have got the story started,” Brey said of Butler’s rise to prominence. “In 2006, in the [preseason National Invitational Tournament], we were up nine on them. They came back. I remember after the game I said, ‘How do you guys lose to Butler?’ Then they beat Indiana. Then won at Gonzaga, and the rest is history.”
However, a shift in Hoosier power may be afoot.
Despite finishing 15-17 last season and missing the NCAA tournament, the Irish defeated in-state rival Indiana, 79-72, at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis. This season, Notre Dame blew out Purdue, 94-63, at the same event Dec. 20. Now the Irish have a chance to go 3-0 against the top schools in the state over the last two seasons.
They’re one of the better teams in the state of Indiana,” Irish senior guard/forward and team captain Pat Connaughton said. “They’ve done so much in March as opposed to us, which is quite the [opposite]. … We’re thrilled not just to get to play them, but to get to play them in the biggest game of the year.”
On the other hand, sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson said he just wants to remain focused on the game at hand and keep the tournament run going.
“I just think it’s two really good teams playing a really good game, and whoever wins gets to survive and advance,” Jackson said when asked if there was a bigger meaning behind tomorrow’s game. “The biggest thing it would mean for us is we’d get to keep playing together. We have so much fun playing together.”
As a native of Mishawaka, Indiana, though, Jackson said he is familiar with the opposing squad.
“I know some of the guys from AAU,” Jackson said. “I know some of the guys from Indiana All-Stars and stuff like that.”
Brey pointed out the common narratives the two programs have followed, especially over the last two seasons. Both teams struggled last year while missing their best player; Irish senior guard Jerian Grant had an academic matter in the spring semester, and Butler lost junior forward Roosevelt Jones for the entire season to an injured wrist.
This year, both the Irish and the Bulldogs have ridden Grant and Jones, respectively, to success. Grant leads Notre Dame in points (16.8) and assists per game (6.6), as well as steals (59), while also averaging three rebounds per game. He has been named one of four Naismith Trophy finalists, the NCAA announced Thursday. Jones leads his team in assists (3.7) and is second on the team in points (12.4) and rebounds (5.2).
During Butler’s 56-48 win over No. 11-seed Texas on Thursday night, Jones hurt his knee and went to the locker room for treatment before returning to the game. First-year Butler head coach Chris Holtmann told reporters Friday he fully expects Jones to be good to go Saturday night against the Irish.
Regardless of whether or not Jones is on the floor, Brey said Butler has always built its name on hard work.
“This is a grinding team. Their half-court defense is physical and grinding, their half-court offense is physical and grinding,” Brey said. “So it’s a great physical challenge for us.
“ … Like our program, they got great kids. You don’t bounce back after a year like they had and we had to get to this point unless you have great kids. They’ve always done it with great kids.”
Brey also said he expected the game to be a clash of opposing styles.
“They want it to be more of a half-court game,” Brey said. “We’d like to get some stops and get out and run and not play against that set, physical half-court defense.”
With bragging rights and a spot in the Sweet Sixteen on the line, Notre Dame and Bulter’s Hoosier-state showdown is scheduled to tip at 9:40 p.m. at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The game will be televised on TBS.