March 27, 2015

Irish NCAA Tournament Central

It’s 27 degrees with snow flurries in Cleveland as the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball team begins preparations for its NCAA Midwest Regional title matchup with unbeaten Kentucky. This will be Notre Dame’s sixth NCAA regional title game (also 1953, 1954, 1958, 1978 and 1979).

In leftovers from Thursday night, among Irish basketball alumni in attendance at Quicken Loans Arena were Dave Batton (he was a senior captain on the 1978 Irish NCAA Final Four team), John Paxson, Pat Garrity, Tracy Jackson, David Graves and Tory Jackson. Tracy Jackson was a sophomore on the last Notre Dame NCAA Elite Eight team in 1979, and he scored 19 points in the Irish loss to Michigan State in Indianapolis in the Mideast Regional title game. Notre Dame eliminated Tennessee and Toledo to reach that 1979 regional championship match.

Check out a few more late-night quotes from the Wichita State locker room:
Freshman forward Rashard Kelly — “You can drop all different sets but when someone’s hitting it’s hard to stop that.”
Freshman forward Shaquille Morris — “They just weren’t missing.”

At 32-5, the Irish are a win away from the all-time Notre Dame men’s basketball victory record from 1908-09 (33-7).

Brey says he was a senior in high school the last time Notre Dame advanced this far in the NCAA Championship.

Jerian Grant’s 11 assists against Wichita State mark the most ever by a Notre Dame player in an NCAA Championship game. That was his sixth double-figure assist effort in 2014-15 and the 10th in his career.

The Notre Dame group has breakfast in its team hotel at 11:30 a.m., with assistant coach Martin Ingelsby distributing Kentucky scouting reports to the coaching staff.

The Irish are assigned a 90-minute closed practice (2-3:30 p.m.) Friday at The Q, but coach Mike Brey schedules the team to leave for the arena at 2 p.m. The players enter the bus with the soaring sounds from the “Selma” soundtrack, “Glory” by John Legend and Common, in the background. Somehow that seems fitting given the current state of affairs with the Notre Dame basketball group.

The first Irish players reach the court at 2:15 p.m. with about 75 minutes left on the official practice clock in the arena. Among the Notre Dame group is vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick who is slated to fly to Oklahoma City late this afternoon to watch the Irish women play their NCAA regional semifinal game and then fly immediately back to Cleveland. The music as the Irish stretch is mellow and laid-back.

The players spend most of their time shooting and they’re finished about 3:05 p.m. with 23 minutes left on the clock. The Irish sample pasta, sweet potato tater tots, salad and cannoli in the locker room until the media session begins at 3:40 p.m.

Media obligations keep Brey and his players occupied at The Q until 5 p.m. Then it’s off to dinner at Johnny’s Downtown, an Italian and seafood spot in the Warehouse District not far from the team hotel.

Notre Dame and Kentucky have met twice previously in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship – 1958 in a regional title game in Lexington, Kentucky (Kentucky won 89-56 and went on to win the NCAA title in Louisville) and 1970 in a regional semifinal game in Columbus, Ohio (Kentucky won 109-99, then lost to Jacksonville in the regional title game).

In that 1970 Irish-Wildcat contest, Notre Dame’s Austin Carr scored 52 points, still tied for the fourth-highest single-game individual point total in NCAA Championship history. Collis Jones added 22 points for the Irish. Dan Issel led Kentucky with 44 points.

Notre Dame boasts 19 all-time wins against Kentucky, including a 64-50 victory in the teams’ most recent meeting on Nov. 29, 2012, at Notre Dame. The Irish have won two of their last three versus Kentucky, including a 77-67 victory on March 25, 2009, at Notre Dame in the National Invitation Tournament.

The Irish previously faced #1-ranked Kentucky teams in 1951-52 (at Chicago Stadium), 1958-59 (Chicago Stadium), 1969-70 (in Louisville), 1977-78 (Louisville) and 1980-81 (Louisville). The lone Notre Dame victory among those five contests came in a 67-61 win on Dec. 27, 1980, at Freedom Hall–as Kelly Tripucka scored 30 points and the Irish hit 25 of 28 free-throw attempts. In that 1969-70 game, Austin Carr scored 43 points for Notre Dame (he hit 20 of 27 shots), while Mike Pratt had 42 points and Issel 35 for Kentucky.

Mike Lopresti spoke with former Irish coach Digger Phelps for a piece on and this was Phelps’ suggestion for Notre Dame: “Just do what they’ve been doing. Don’t think about anything. Just play your game. That’s what they’ve been doing, and they’ve won eight in a row.”

— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director