Notre Dame will enter NCAA Tournament as true wildcard

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The most underrated portion of post-season college basketball is already over, and after four months of upsets, underdogs, and unfulfilled expectations, it’s no great surprise that championship week was just as unpredictable.

While every conference has a resident spoiler, or at least one dark horse that nobody wants to play, few worry potential opponents as much as the ACC’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish [21-11], who dealt Duke an overtime-loss on Thursday in their first game of the conference tournament, before being throttled 78-47 by North Carolina in the semi-finals.

Resilient in regular season wins versus North Carolina and Louisville, fortunate in victories at Duke and versus Iowa, and self-destructive in losses to Monmouth and Alabama, the Fighting Irish have been consistently inconsistent all season.

Prior to knocking-off NC State in last Saturday’s regular season finale, Notre Dame had locked-on to the wrong kind of consistency with a 1-3 mark during the previous four contests and losses to Florida State, Georgia Tech, and Miami.

But according to head coach Mike Brey, risking some sporadically bad decisions in an attempt to play at a faster pace is the key to this team’s success.

”Maybe we take some semi-bad shots. I don’t care,” said Brey. ”We’re going to go. We’re going to roll. It has us playing downhill, and we get some easy buckets instead of playing against a set defense.”

Ultimately, it’s all about possessions for a Notre Dame squad that averaged 65.8 possessions per game during the regular season—well below the national division-one average of 69.1. Unfortunately, that’s not the only thing that Brey and the Irish have to worry about.

After earning an early place in the conference player of the year debate with a rock-solid start to the season, junior guard Demetrious Jackson has failed to reach his 15.5 point-per-game average in each of his last seven games.

Realistically, Notre Dame can’t afford for Jackson to be anything but offensively spectacular going forward. But ensuring that senior Zach Auguste continues his recent string of double-doubles, and getting consistent production from the bench, will both be critical to this team’s success in the days ahead.

”We always said, because I wanted them to get away from being an extension of last year’s team, that I really believe this group has a chance to improve all the way up to the ACC Tournament,” added Brey.

For what’s it’s worth, the Fighting Irish will have big-game experience on their side when the madness begins after Jackson, Auguste, Steve Vasturia, Bonzie Colson, and to a lesser extent, V.J. Beachem, all contributed to last year’s Elite 8 team.

But Brey and the Fighting Irish didn’t just lose two of their top talents when Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton moved on to the NBA after guiding last year’s 32-win team to the Elite 8, they lost two leaders—especially in the case of Connaughton, and Jackson and others must now take a page from their former teammates if Notre Dame plans on playing in April.

Entering championship week, both ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and USA Today Sports listed Notre Dame as a seven seed in the latest editions of ”Bracketology”. Of course, that could, and probably will, change before Selection Sunday.

But as we saw again in last week’s win over Duke, this team is definitely capable of performing on the big stage, and while it will be tough to match last year’s run, Notre Dame can still cause plenty of problems for almost any opponent in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

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