Insider: Which ND team will show up?
Marek Mazurek | Friday, March 18, 2016
All season long, Notre Dame has been one of the toughest teams to figure out.
The team lost its two best players from last year, Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, and looked to enter the 2016 campaign as an average ACC team.
However, led by junior guard Demetrius Jackson, this year’s squad refused to fade into obscurity. On Jan. 16, the Irish upset then-No. 9 Duke, a win that was part of a four-game winning streak. Three weeks later, the Irish knocked off then-No. 2 North Carolina and then-No. 13 Louisville before stumbling in losses to Georgia Tech and Florida State.
This stretch of games paints a glaringly clear picture of Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament chances: the wins over North Carolina and Louisville prove the Irish have the talent to hang with anyone in the country, but the losses to Florida State and Georgia Tech prove the Irish have problems avoiding playing down to the level of their competition.
And if Notre Dame plays to the level of their competition come Friday, they’ll be on the first plane back to South Bend.
The No. 6 seed in the East Region, the Irish will play No. 11-seeded Michigan and this is problematic. When the Irish play teams ranked between 51 and 100 in the Ratings Percentage Index, they’re 3-6: Michigan is ranked 57th.
For a team ranked 31st itself, success against average teams should be Notre Dame’s bread and butter. Yet that has not been the case this year. Against teams in the top 25, the Irish are a respectable 4-5 and against teams ranked outside the top 100, they are a perfect 13-0. But against run-of-the-mill teams, the Irish lost twice as many games as they won and with a first round matchup against one such team fast approaching, the Irish will have to turn this trend on its head.
Thus, Notre Dame’s tournament fate depends on whether the team comes ready to play.
Just the fact that it is March Madness will not accomplish this. Notre Dame has a bad habit of making early exits in the Big Dance — see 2011, 2012 and 2013. In fact, last year was the first season since 2003 in which the Irish advanced to the Sweet 16.
Furthermore, the team had a chance to chase the regular-season title in the ACC, but faltered against Georgia Tech and Florida State. If making a run at the conference title doesn’t get this team to play up to their potential, it’s not a given a contest against an old rival will.
Hand in hand with readiness to play is the plague of slow starts the Irish have suffered as of late. Against Miami two weeks ago, the Hurricanes scored the first 12 points and led 21-3 eight minutes into the first half. Against the Tar Heels last Friday, the Irish trailed 41-22 at halftime.
Slow starts kill a team’s chances, especially in the NCAA tournament and especially against underdogs. Michigan will come out of the gates hungry and physical and if the Irish don’t put them away early, an upset is likely without a Grant to make game-winning plays.
Being prepared is crucial for this squad because when the Irish do decide to play well, they are hard to stop. In the second half of the North Carolina game, Notre Dame put up 50 points on one of the best defensive teams in the country. Should the Irish advance, the combination of senior forward Zach Auguste’s presence on the glass and Jackson’s ability to drive the ball make this a dangerous team to face.
In the end, this year’s NCAA tournament will not come down to strategy or field goal percentage or points in the paint or even mustard uniforms. This March is all about whether or not Mike Brey’s team arrives in Brooklyn wanting to win.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.