March 28, 2015
CLEVELAND (AP) Beware, Kentucky. That little leprechaun looms.
The pristine season, the presumed NCAA championship, the aura of invincibility and every other plaudit being thrown at the so-good-they’re-scary Wildcats are all at great risk. There’s a proven giant-killer waiting.
Notre Dame’s got next.
The Fighting Irish, with a long history of slaying basketball behemoths, stand in Kentucky’s path to the Final Four and perhaps the first undefeated season in the college game since Bobby Knight’s Indiana squad ran the table 39 years ago. On Saturday night, Notre Dame gets another chance at bringing down this team of teams, one some feel is invincible – you know, like the 1974 UCLA Bruins, who had their 88-game winning streak stopped by ND.
Double-digit underdogs, the Fighting Irish (32-5) believe they’ll take the floor with millions.
”We are America’s team tomorrow,” coach Mike Brey said Friday. ”And we love it, we certainly will take all that support. We’ve got a monumental challenge on our hands.”
No doubt. David only had one Goliath to deal with. Kentucky’s got a half-dozen future NBA first-round draft picks, and the top-seeded Wildcats (37-0) are coming off a jaw-dropping, 39-point win over West Virginia in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Regional. Kentucky showcased all of its splendor – size, depth, defense, cold-bloodedness – in running the Mountaineers out of Quicken Loans Arena.
But beyond having one of the most efficient offenses in the country, 3-point shooters and underrated toughness, the Fighting Irish believe. Big time.
”We have a lot of confidence,” guard Jerian Grant said. ”We feel they haven’t played an offensive team like us. Just go out there and play our game I think we’ll be able to get a win.”
Notre Dame has knocked off the AP’s No. 1 ranked team eight times, most recently in 2012 against Syracuse. And while that won’t necessarily help them as they try to tame the Wildcats, the Fighting Irish have faith it can happen again.
”You look back in history, we’ve been able to do it,” said senior forward Pat Connaughton. ”Something that I and this team have preached on the whole year is that we’ve kind of been writing our own history, doing things the Notre Dame basketball program hasn’t done in a long time – or ever. So as much as you look back, you’ve got to still be in the present time and know that you’re going at this, it’s completely different.
”You can’t rely on history to play its course. You need to write your own history.”
Talking about beating Kentucky is one thing, pulling it off is something else. West Virginia had a plan, but once the Mountaineers were down 18-2, everything went out the window.
Kentucky doesn’t beat itself, and coach John Calipari disagrees that someone will have to play a nearly perfect game to upend the Wildcats.
”My team knows that every team that’s left playing can beat us, we know that,” he said. ”Somebody talked about perfection. We’re not perfect; we’re undefeated. I mean, we should have lost five or six games. We easily could have lost those games. And we were lucky enough to win.
”Well, this is the same kind of game, you can’t help Notre Dame. If you do, you’re going to lose because they’re that good.”
Brey, who believes his team is better tested than Kentucky after a season in the rugged ACC, knows what it takes to conquer a seemingly unbeatable team. He was on Duke’s coaching staff in 1991, when the Blue Devils stunned undefeated UNLV in the Final Four. Brey remembers early success snowballing into a victory few thought possible.
”We got off to a great start and then you believed,” he said. ”And it’s similar to tomorrow. You get off to a good start against Kentucky in here tomorrow night, OK, we’ve got a shot at this thing.”
Notre Dame has made the most of these shots before.
HARRISON’S FINGER: Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison said his dislocated left ring finger was sore, but the Wildcats’ leading scorer doesn’t expect it to slow him Saturday.
Harrsion got hurt while trying to make a steal in the second half against West Virginia, and his finger was bent so grotesquely that a Kentucky trainer ran on the floor and threw a towel over it.
”When I first saw it, I heard my wife just scream as a mother,” Calipari said, ”I had to look away.”
Harrison headed toward the locker room, but quickly returned after the medical staff popped his finger back into place. When he returned to the bench, Calipari wanted to know if it would affect his shooting touch.
”I said, ‘Is it your left hand or right hand?” Calipari said. ”He said my left hand. That’s why I kissed him.”
ACC GRIND: Notre Dame went 14-4 in the ACC, quite a turnaround for a team that won just six conference games last season. Not only did the Irish acquit themselves during the regular season, but they then went to Tobacco Road and beat Duke and North Carolina in Greensboro on consecutive days to win the ACC Tournament.
Brey said there’s no better training for Kentucky.
”We were 4-1 against Duke and Carolina this year,” he said. ”If that doesn’t get you ready for playing these dudes tomorrow, I don’t know what does.”
CONFERENCE CALL: The Atlantic Coast Conference has three teams still playing – Duke, Notre Dame and Louisville – and with each in a different region there is a chance it could match the BIG EAST’s record of three teams in one Final Four in 1985. The ACC’s record of 14-3 through the regional semifinals is the only one over .750 by any conference.
The Big Ten has two teams still alive – Wisconsin and Michigan State – while the Southeastern Conference (Kentucky), Pac-12 (Arizona) and West Coast Conference (Gonzaga) have one each.
There were two teams from one conference in the last two Final Fours. Last year it was Kentucky and Florida of the SEC and in 2013 it was Louisville and Syracuse of the BIG EAST.
IMPRESSIVE GROUP: The eight coaches working the sidelines this weekend can be broken into three groups.
There are those that already have at least one national championship: John Calipari, Kentucky; Mike Krzyzewski, Duke; Tom Izzo, Michigan State; and Rick Pitino, Louisville.
Then there are those still looking for their first Final Four appearance: Sean Miller, Arizona; Mark Few, Gonzaga; and Mike Brey, Notre Dame.
The third group is Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, who took the Badgers to the Final Four last season for the first time and is still looking for his first Division I championship. He coached Wisconsin-Platteville to four Division III titles in the 1990s.