March 13, 2011
NOTRE DAME, Ind. (AP) – Notre Dame figured it had made a strong case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament despite a crushing overtime loss to Louisville in the BIG EAST semifinals.
The 83-77 defeat Friday night – when the Irish squandered a 16-point lead – was still bothering coach Mike Brey after his team was given a No. 2 seed in the Southwest regional Sunday.
Now Brey and the Irish (26-6), who had impressive road wins at Connecticut and Pitt, will get ready for an opener Friday against Mid-American Conference tournament champion Akron.
And even if they didn’t get a top seed, the Irish will be playing close to home, about 95 miles across the Indiana Toll Road at the United Center in Chicago.
“I think we had a lot of argument for a 1, quite frankly, when you look at our resume,” Brey said.
“We’re fine. We’re thrilled. We’re a 2. We earned that. … We’ve been on a pretty good run. Just erase the numbers now and look at the matchups. … You take the seeds away from the teams’ names now, and you’ve got to go try to win a tournament in Chicago.”
The 15th-seeded Zips (23-12) nipped Kent State 66-65 in overtime to win the MAC tournament championship.
Akron’s 7-foot center, Zeke Marshall, blocked nine shots in the game and had 88 for the season.
The Zips are also proficient 3-point shooters, making 36 percent. Notre Dame hit 39 percent of its 3-point attempts, so it could come down to which team can defend the long-range shot.
During its strong regular season, the Irish downed BIG EAST tourney champion UConn twice and knocked off Pitt on its home floor.
The Panthers, who won the BIG EAST regular-season title before losing to UConn in the tournament quarterfinals, were picked as the top seed in the Southeast.
Ben Hansbrough, who struggled in the loss to Louisville, was asked his thoughts when he saw that the Irish got a No. 2 seed instead of a No. 1.
“We can’t change it,” Hansbrough said. “I think the NCAA tournament, I think seeds do matter, but I don’t think they matter greatly. If you are wanting to make a deep run, you are going to have to beat some really good teams regardless of what your seed is.”
Behind Hansbrough, the BIG EAST player of the year, and Brey, voted the league’s top coach, the Irish used a share-the-ball mentality. They have versatility, with all five veteran starters – Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis, Carleton Scott, Scott Martin and Tyrone Nash – able to pass, score, shoot, rebound and handle the ball.
Notre Dame’s regular-season losses were to Kentucky in Louisville and in road games at Syracuse, Marquette, St. John’s and West Virginia. The Irish were 17-0 at the Purcell Pavilion and were the only BIG EAST team to go undefeated at home.
Brey said he emphasized to his team, especially after some rough stretches, that they had to keep playing the same unselfish style.
“No group in the country, certainly in the top seeds, relies on the sum of its parts more than us,” Brey said. “We need all our parts kind of doing their thing or we can be kind of average.”
Not that the Irish needed motivation, but they certainly have not forgotten last season’s one-point loss to Old Dominion in their NCAA tournament opener.
“One of the things that drove our group all summer was they didn’t win a first-round NCAA tournament game,” Brey said.
Beating the Zips and then getting out of Chicago won’t be easy. If they do get past Akron, the Irish will play the winner of Texas A&M and Florida State on Sunday in the home arena of the Chicago Bulls.
The No. 2 seed is Notre Dame’s highest since also receiving a second seed in 1981 under Digger Phelps. The Irish go into the tournament with 12 wins in their past 14 games. It’s just that the loss to Louisville still hurts.
Hansbrough, who was 3 for 16 with six turnovers in that game, said he was just ready to get back on the floor and practice.
“I think we can beat anybody in the country,” he said. “If we’re playing well, I don’t think there is one team in the country we can’t beat.”