Padanilam: Notre Dame cannot afford to look ahead
Benjamin Padanilam | Tuesday, March 14, 2017
Just one month ago, Irish head coach Muffet McGraw had all but given up on Notre Dame’s chances of being a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Yet come Selection Monday, the Irish (30-3, 15-1 ACC) found themselves atop the tournament’s Lexington region for the second year in a row — a sixth straight season as a No. 1 seed in the tournament. And Notre Dame’s play down the stretch has earned them that distinction, as an 18-point win over then-No. 8 Florida State and an ACC championship run that ended with a 23-point victory over now-No. 2 seed Duke secured its place at amongst the NCAA’s top seeds.
It also set the Irish up for a potential NCAA championship matchup with the undefeated tournament favorites, Connecticut.
While the perception of this year’s version of the Irish has changed over the course of the season — a season which saw three losses bring many questions about the vulnerability of the team — the expectations have not. Notre Dame came into the year as the preseason’s top-ranked team and the Irish now expect to make another Final Four run and be one of the few teams that stand in the way of a fifth straight championship for the Huskies.
But the Irish carried those same expectations into last year’s Lexington region. And it ended with a surprisingly early exit during the Sweet 16 following a 90-84 loss to Stanford.
Now, they have a similar opportunity presented to them, and they would be remiss not to remember that loss. Because as much as the Irish might want another crack at the UConn squad that beat them 72-61 back in December, they will need five wins in a stacked tournament field just to have the chance. And while the Irish had made Final Four trips look easy in the past — they made five consecutive trips to the tournament’s final weekend prior to last season’s early exit — last year should remind them that every game is a fight that requires a complete effort from start to finish.
And this season will be no different. The Irish will get to host its first two games on campus before hitting the road to Lexington, Kentucky. There, the Irish face a potential matchup with fourth-seeded Kentucky — a game which would effectively amount to a road game in the Sweet 16 — or fifth-seeded Ohio State, which finished as No. 11 in the season’s final AP poll and No. 10 in the coaches’ poll, but earned little respect coming out of the Big Ten.
Should it survive that potential matchup, Notre Dame might then get a rematch of its final game from last year: a date in Rupp Arena with the region’s No. 2 seed, Stanford. And a victory in the Elite Eight would earn the Irish the Final Four trip they desire.
So although it is clearly laid out for them, the path will not be an easy one for the Irish. It will also be one that must be approached one game at a time, a message McGraw will certainly ensure her team is cognizant of heading into Friday’s first game.
The fact is, the Irish will not be favored to win it all, but they have the talent to do just that. Everyone will be asking on who can beat UConn, but the Irish cannot forget their run starts with Robert Morris, not with looking ahead.
And understanding that could once again be the difference between playing for the national championship and watching it from home for Notre Dame.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.