Notre Dame enters tourney with first-ever automatic bid
Manuel De Jesus | Thursday, March 19, 2015
For the first time in program history, Notre Dame will compete in the NCAA tournament as an automatic qualifier this Thursday after winning its first ACC championship last Saturday.
The No. 8 Irish (29-5, 14-4 ACC) entered the ACC tournament as a three-seed and defeated Miami (Fla.), Duke and North Carolina to win the tournament title. Now, they’ll compete in the NCAA tournament as a three-seed in the Midwest region. The path to Indianapolis for a possible Final Four appearance starts Thursday as Notre Dame faces No. 14 seed Northeastern.
“This has been a focused group, there is no question,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “They enjoyed and celebrated one of the most if not the most special moment in our program’s history and well deserved. I also think that they’re a confident group. I’ve never taken a team into the NCAA tournament off of a tournament championship in our league, and so I think that gives you a whole other level of believing.”
Notre Dame’s appearance in the tournament is its seventh bid in the last nine years, and the 10th time for Brey during his 15-year career with the Irish. Brey’s record in the tournament is 6-9, with the team’s best performance coming in 2003 when Notre Dame defeated Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Illinois in the first and second rounds of the tournament before falling to top-seeded Arizona in the Sweet 16.
“I would say it’s the most confident I’ve been with a team going into the NCAA tournament,” Brey said. “And I think with the experience and what happened in Greensboro, [North Carolina], it’s given me that.”
The Irish finished second in the nation in field goal percentage and 11th in the country in points per game. They carried these strengths from the regular season into the postseason, shooting 51 percent from the field and averaging 78 points per game in the ACC tournament.
“Well, we have had an amazing regular season, but we just won the ACC Championship, something that’s never been done and will go down in history here at Notre Dame, and every year we have a different team, and this year’s team is that much more different, so we have confidence going into the tournament,” senior guard Jerian Grant said. “Like I said, we want to play our game. We feel like if we play our game, we can play well against any team in the country, and if it happens to be Kentucky we will go out on the court confident.”
In their upcoming matchup against Northeastern (23-11, 12-6 CAA), who also just won its conference tournament, Notre Dame will be facing a team with a very similar scheme and lineup. While the 14th-seed is almost never favored against a three-seed, Brey said the Huskies are a team that cannot be overlooked.
“I know Northeastern well,” Brey said. “I played them a lot in my America East days, when I was at the University of Delaware. They were in the Hall of Fame Classic, so got to see them play a little bit, remember them beating Florida State early in the season, Billy Coen is a bright, young coach, one of the best in the business. They play a lot like us. They spread you out, they move the ball. They’ve got shot makers, they know how to play. They will play a little bit of a matchup zone, but, again, it’s a team like this that just won a conference championship tournament, so you go in with some momentum and belief.”
While top-seeded Kentucky and highly-ranked Kansas could await Notre Dame in later rounds, Brey stressed the team has to break the tournament up into smaller pieces. The Irish have to win the Pittsburgh “tournament” before they have to worry about traveling to Cleveland, Brey said.
“The last tournament we played in, we won it, so going into this one … Coach Brey mentioned to us that it’s many tournaments,” senior guard Pat Connaughton said. “Right now we’re focused on the Pittsburgh tournament and focused on Northeastern, more specifically, and if we can win that one, we will move on. You need to take it one game at a time and play the way we have been playing over the last week.”
Notre Dame will tip off in the second round of the NCAA tournament against Northeastern on Thursday in Pittsburgh at 12:15 p.m.