California Dreamin' (Of Final Four)

Notre Dame has never been on a stage quite like this one during basketball season. Palm trees, warm breezes, Arizona, Duke, Kansas, and talk of the Final Four. Does Notre Dame belong? IrishEyes Magazine Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports from the Arrowhead Pond on an Irish team that believes, even if the national media appears not to.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

March 26, 2003

California Dreamin'
Of Basketball Upsets

By Alan Tieuli
IrishEyes Magazine

ANAHEIM, Calif. (IE) – Yeah, it was about 73 degrees today.  Cloudless sky with a slight breeze rustling the palm trees.  Heck, even the traffic into Orange County from LAX wasn't that bad. 

Not that the city of Anaheim is anything special.  Envision a city with virtually every street resembling Mishawaka's Grape Road and you have a pretty accurate picture.  This is the personification of homogeneous America, with mouse ears. 

And, ironically, enough, in a hockey arena inspired by a Disney movie, four of the best college basketball teams in the land have arrived to compete in two absolutely delicious West Regional semifinal games.   Three of the squads – top seed Arizona, No. 2 Kansas and No. 3 Duke – have combined for seven national championships through the years. 

The fourth team, your beloved, fifth-seeded Fighting Irish of Notre Dame, is still trying to convince people it belongs here. 

"I would have thought we were the 12-seed if you listened to everybody last week in Indianapolis," said head coach Mike Brey. "We were the upset pick (to lose to Wisconsin-Milwaukee).  And there was no way we were going to beat Illinois.  You almost kind of relish it a little bit.  It's a good position to be in." 

The national media that has descended on the Arrowhead Pond doesn't appear to be taking 24-9 Notre Dame too seriously.  Four of the first eight questions Brey was asked in his post-practice press conference related to his time with Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.  Ah, guys, Notre Dame plays Arizona Thursday at 4:27 p.m. Pacific time. 

From the front row of the press seating, you could feel Brey's sighs as he professionally answered each question about his old mentor.  There were other questions about the challenges of coaching at a "football school," and the rigors of the admission process.  In other words, the media was grasping on to very familiar story lines. 

But Notre Dame has a chance to make hardwood headlines if it can upset 27-3 Arizona, an eight-point favorite.  A victory would catapult the Irish into the Elite Eight for the first time since 79.  Notre Dame hasn't won three straight games in the NCAA's since its 1978 Final Four run. 

"When you get into the Sweet 16, the rankings do not matter," said senior shooting guard Matt Carroll, who had a spring in his step during the light practice and looks to have his sprained ankle at near 100-percent Thursday. "I think our first-round game, people were saying it was going to be a 5-12 upset.  Now we definitely are against the best team in the country, but we believe in ourselves.  It plays to our favor." 

Several hundred folks from the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Orange County certainly believe.  They nearly filled two lower sections of the Pond and chanted loudly for the Irish as practice concluded.  Just a handful of hoop junkies were on hand for the Arizona, Duke and Kansas workouts in a facility that is similar in design and color scheme to Philadelphia's First Union Center.  (Hopefully that's not a bad omen for the Irish, who have never beaten Villanova in Big East play and are an ugly 0-2 at First Union.) 

Perhaps a better omen is that a Walton will be in uniform today.  Notre Dame's all-time greatest victory, of course, was the 71-70 victory over No. 1 UCLA on Jan. 19, 1974, snapping the Bruins' 88-game winning streak.  The contest still merits two full pages in the Irish media guide.  Bill Walton, the All-American center on that squad, will be at the Pond Thursday to watch his 6-8 senior son Luke start against the Irish. 

"Yeah, he talked about it all the time," Walton said of his dad. "He said that game ruined his life.  But to me none of it has anything to do with the game tomorrow." 

What has everything to do with the Irish-Wildcats match-up is offense.   Arizona averages 85.4 points per game, a full 15 points better than its opposition.   The Irish score 79.8 per contest.


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