That's been Irish head coach Mike Brey's mantra for the past two seasons – a goal for his program, one he still considers in its Big East infancy despite a decade-plus of consistent regular season success. (Notre Dame joined the formerly regionally-based conference for the 1996 season.)
"We have played in the semis but never the championship," Brey noted on numerous occasions over the last 13 months. "Our objective is to play Saturday night. It would be great for our program."
Tonight is Notre Dame's third appearance in the Friday Night semifinals over the last five years (and fourth in Brey's 11 at the helm).
Positioned opposite Notre Dame and tonight's opponent, conference-newbie Louisville, is Big East royalty: Syracuse and Connecticut. The former, a three-decade constant in the finals; the latter: a two-decade national title competitor. The two will square off at 7 pm prior to the Irish/Cards tip.
Considering Louisville is one of eight college programs to win multiple national titles in the last three decades (UConn is another), and considering Louisville took home the 2009 Big East Tournament championship (and advanced to the Elite 8 later that month), Mike Brey's Irish are the 2011 conference final four's true outliers – with more to prove by their post-season performances this month than any other title contender.
In Notre Dame's 16-year Big East history, eight different programs have claimed the post-season tournament crown, including since-departed Boston College, twice. (The Irish would be the ninth should they take home the title tomorrow night.)
One more stepStanding in the way of Brey's final's quest is Louisville and Rick Pitino's self-proclaimed, ubiquitous, "Mother-in-Law" defense (dubbed as such due to its "constant pressure and harassment"). The Irish handled it with aplomb in an 89-79 overtime win one month previous, committing just seven turnovers. In a stunner, the Irish turned the Cardinals over 10 times and put Louisville under with their now requisite free throw line advantage (Notre Dame shot 20 of 28; Louisville 8-11).
Turnovers and the charity stripe will again serve as a central story lines to tonight's contest. Louisville creates turnovers, and commits fouls in the process, as their 2010-11 opponents scored 23.7% of their collective points from the foul line, ranking as the 55th worst free throw "defense" in the nation.
Conversely, Notre Dame generally avoids turnovers and scored 23.3% of its points on free throws this season. Their foes free throw appearances? A paltry 16%, giving the Irish the eighth-best free throw "defense" in the nation.
Pitino's crew produced the nation's second-best overall defense according to the widely respected Kenpom.com. Notre Dame's offense? Ranked No. 3 overall.
Louisville gleans 35.4% of its offense from the three-point shot (22nd in the nation). Notre Dame's three-point defense ranks near the bottom 50, nationally and was the least successful in Big East play.
Yet despite a quartet (and quintet if things are rolling) of both Cardinals and Irish to track from beyond the arc, tonight's contest will nonetheless be decided by the teams' overall defensive success vs. opposing point guards: ND's Ben Hansbrough and the ‘Ville's Peyton Siva.
Hansbrough was the league's best player from beginning to end; Siva is the off-the-dribble blur that makes the Louisville attack click and a top candidate for first-team league honors in 2012.
Hansbrough trashed the Cardinals for 25 points in February while Siva was held in relative check, notching 7 assists with 9 points though there was a stage late in the contest in which the Irish appeared helpless to stop the sophomore from making his way deep into the Notre Dame lane.
(If savvy but not-yet defensively seasoned freshman Eric Atkins draws Siva in too many 1-on-1 situations, the Irish will lose going away.)
Both Hansbrough and Siva should play well tonight, marking the overall performances of red-hot forwards Tim Abromaitis and Kyle Kuric as the game-within-the game.
Abromaitis will track Louisville leading scorer Preston Knowles for the bulk of the contest. The league's top scholar-athlete played his best game of the season in the February win over the Cardinals, scoring 23, securing eight boards, and committing no turnovers in 44 minutes. More important, Abromaitis matched his opponents' collective aggressiveness with myriad loose ball victories, tie-ups of ball-handlers, and the like.
Kuric was an unstoppable force in the first half from long range, drilling the Irish for 18 points on 7-9 shooting (not to mention the dunk of the year over Irish senior Scott Martin). He was held in check in a 9-point, one field goal second stanza.
Look for tonight's winner to takeout the victor of the first semi-final (Syracuse/UConn) in tomorrow's championship game.
Brey's Irish have proved you, me, and Basketball America wrong for the bulk of the season. They'll have to do it one more time tonight.
Louisville 73 Notre Dame 70
Season Predictions: 18-6; 15-8-1 against the spread.