Disbelief

Notre Dame basketball is on the precipice of a No. 1 NCAA seed.

I agree with Joe Lunardi.

ESPN's master Bracketologist (it's in the dictionary) is one of the most referenced, requested, and read sports personalities each year from late-February through mid-March.

Lunardi believes Notre Dame ranks as the NCAA Tournament's third No. 1 seed – behind Ohio State (a lock for #1 overall); behind Kansas; ahead of Pittsburgh. And the Panthers, the Big East regular season champion vanquished yesterday by Kemba the Lionhearted in the final second, will be the team to await its fate after the ACC champion (Duke or North Carolina) is crowned this weekend.

Notre Dame will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament – I never thought I'd see the day.

Their case on paper? Iron-clad. The eye test? More compelling than the objective, though relevant and often telling numbers.

  • Five consecutive wins vs. ranked foes (first time since the 1978 Final Four squad turned the trick in February and March that year).
  • 11 victories vs. the RPI top 40 (most in the nation).
  • Four of the five losses occurred vs. the RPI top 25; on the Selection Committee's sheet, Notre Dame shows no "bad loss" with the worst to Tournament-bound Marquette.
  • Road wins at Pittsburgh and UConn; a 5-4 Big East road record; a 4-1 (and counting) neutral site record with three wins and the loss occurring vs. NCAA-bound teams.

With the likely exception of Ohio State and apologies to Wisconsin (because I fell asleep typing that school's name), Notre Dame has the most difficult offense to defend in the nation. They're inarguably among the top 5 – include Duke and Kansas in the mix.

(For those of you late to the 2011 party, and judging from misguided, antiquated notions about this squad, it appears to be a healthy number; these aren't the chuck-and-duck Irish of the mid-decade.)

Mike Brey's rotation boasts five senior pistons firing as one. A two-man bench with a true point guard in Eric Atkins and true defensive center (Jack Cooley) that compliments the most versatile starting lineup in the college game:

  • Ben Hansbrough: A top tier point guard and shooting guard and a player that ranks as the best overall shooter (50.9 FG; 84.9 FT; 43.0 3-point percentage in Big East games) of any guard in Notre Dame history.

  • Tim Abromaitis: At 6'8" 235 pounds, he guards the opponent's best shooter (usually off-guard or small forward) and draws the same. The reciprocal matchup – a G/F on a 6'8" 235-pound senior – has allowed the Irish to control the boards in a true team effort this season, with Abromaitis ranking third on the squad at better than six rebounds per game. The third-team All Big East performer can play shooting guard, small forward, or power forward in Mike Brey's fluid offense.

  • Scott Martin: Another 6'8" guard, only unlike Abro, its natural athleticism that allows him to play three positions (SG, SF, PF). Possessing the team's best vertical leap (yes, he bested Carleton Scott), Martin rebounds his position (nearly 5 per game) and here's the good news: he's a better player in road and neutral site games than at home. His length allows the Irish to rebound from a zone defense for the first time since 2003 (a Sweet 16 team).

  • Tyrone Nash: The offense runs through him in the low post; he works as a third ball-handler; a high-post passer and facilitator, and at his best, a player who's patience and ability to hit the open man results in two free throws, multiple fouls over the course of the contest, or a purist's dream: the cross-lane pass from the post for an open 3-point shot. He guards the team's best post player, but ranks as the second best perimeter defender as well (behind Hansbrough), making him a valuable commodity defending the high screen-and-roll.

  • Carleton Scott: The Irish are 29-4 when the Prodigal Son starts. The best weakside defender is also the team's best mid-range shooter, rebounder, and free throw shooter (27 of 29 in Big East games this year). He's a strong third option from beyond the arc and its second-best post defender. More important, Scott and Nash work in congress better than any front-line pair at the program since (at least) Ryan Humphrey and Troy Murphy in the early portion of the decade. Scott can defend and operate at three different front line positions (SF, PF, C).

In its most recent litmus last night vs. Cincinnati, the Irish produced 22 assists vs. 5 turnovers – facing constant pressure defense – in the Big East quarterfinals against a 25-win, NCAA-bound team. It was a clinic of offensive basketball, featuring 27 points via the three-point shot, 20 of their first 64 points against the Bearcats' press, and 16 free throws. That leaves 26 points from the half-court offense on layups, mid-range shots, and points in the paint.

Have fun designing a defense to stop that onslaught.

The myth of the deep bench

If you're among the head-shaking legion of Irish detractors that demands against all logic to see a deeper bench from Mike Brey, I have but two truths to offer:

  1. After the aforementioned Cooley and Atkins, have you seen the rest of the bench?
  2. This isn't 1990, a time of college basketball super teams. Check out how many Duke bench players earned minutes in last year's final, actually, I'll do it for you: (17 total bench minutes with 0 points among three players). I suppose Coach K can't use his bench either, right?

For further evidence to debug this incessant bench-boasting lunacy, consider North Carolina (the 2009 champion) played just two subs double-digit minutes in a complete destruction of Michigan State in the title game; that Kansas offered the same 7-man rotation in its overtime title win (that's 45 minutes) over Memphis; and that Florida used two substitutes for extended minutes (13 and 9) in its title win over Ohio State (7 total bench players appeared in that game between both teams). Florida previously used a strong three-man bench (only eight players) the previous year in a championship blowout of UCLA.

Bill Self, Roy Williams and Billy Donovan should be ashamed of themselves. They'll never make it in this profession with that approach.

The NCAA Tournament is divided into three weekends in which winning teams play two games in three days. Notre Dame did that three times this season in Big East play. Their record in those games? 5-1.

Would a third reliable bench option make this team better? Probably, assuming he could blend seamlessly for 6-10 minutes and not disrupt the flow of one of the nation's best offense. (I'd have preferred an extra big man rather than semi-contributing offensive threat, but sophomore banger Mike Broghammer's season was lost to injury.)

An element of bench contribution is an essential ingredient to win a championship (Duke the exception last year). But a deep bench is rarely part of that recipe for success in modern college basketball.

The Notre Dame basketball program produced the Big East's best coach (for the third time in five years), its best player (for the fourth time in 15), and its best student-athlete (back-to-back winner Tim Abromaitis).

It soared to #4 in the country in the final regular season poll (its highest ranking in 32 years) and is on the precipice of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Basketball Tournament for the first time since brackets were seeded.

I never thought I'd see the day.

Next week: The dreaded Warts, Weakness, or Fatal Flaw column – dissecting the Irish entering the NCAA Tournament.


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