Mike Brey's Irish have entered NCAA contests favored before; they've both won and suffered frustrating losses in those matchups. But they've never experienced the role of the prohibitive favorite: the hands-down best team on the court, in the arena over the course of a weekend, and with a legitimate chance at something more than a modest two-game run.
They enter today's contest and the 2011 Tournament as such. Today's foe, Akron (a statistical breakdown of the Zips can be found here), boasts a legitimate inside threat in 7-foot center Zeke Marshall and a host of long range snipers who helped tune up 2011 foes at nearly a 34 percent clip from long range.
Marshall, who owned multiple major scholarship offers as a high school senior (including Pittsburgh), blocked nine second-half shots in a MAC Tourney championship upset of Kent State, noted the Zips are a far different team than the unit that began the season 10-10 including a loss to lowly Eastern Michigan in early February.
"We play as a team more," said the sophomore shot-swatter. "We've stopped trying to put up our own numbers and combine as a team to have one common goal of winning. We're not trying to make ourselves look good, but the team to look good."
The Irish have looked good, and at times, dominant for the better part of four months.
Brey's interchangeable parts have forged a legitimate offensive machine, one ranked third in overall efficiency with four knock-down three-point shooters, the Big East's Player of the Year at the point, and crisp passing quartet of 6'8" athletes that have oh-by-the-way produced the best rebounding unit at the program – last week's frustrating semi-finals loss to Louisville notwithstanding – since the early portion of the decade, when future first-round picks Troy Murphy and Ryan Humphrey roamed the paint.
But that offense has bogged down for stretches in each of the team's six losses (a three-decade low). While ball pressure and defensive athleticism were consistent culprits in slowing the Irish attack, Brey knows there was one internal element central to the occasional struggles as well – foul trouble that plagued senior pivot Tyrone Nash.
"One thing I'm going to tell him is ‘Don't get into foul trouble," Brey said of his versatile senior. "We need him in the game; he needs to play major minutes for us. And when you enter the NCAA tournament, because the (officiating) crews are mixed, and the point of emphasis of freedom of movement will come back to the forefront, I think you have to be ready for the game to be called close and then adjust accordingly.
"I talked to him about that and to our team about that. We need him on the court. We need him to be smarter defensively and then we need to be smart with our matchups, because when he touches the ball for us low – our shooting percentage has to be 15 percent higher when he touches it for a possession."
Nash's offensive touches are key, but so too is his defensive presence. He guards the team's best post player yet also serves as the key to the team's sometimes vexing high screen-and-roll defensive strategy – that is: Nash can switch and defend ball handlers while the rest of the Irish front line has endured struggles vs. penetrating foes.
By virtue of his defense of the post and ability to challenge opposing guards, Nash naturally finds more foul opportunities than do his teammates. He needs to avoid them over the three weekends if the Irish are to reach their ultimate goal.
New mindsetIn past season, Mike Brey often spoke of "getting one of the bids in our league."
It was a modest, though realistic goal: find a way into the NCAA Tournament and see what happens.
What "happened" previously resulted in a 5-6 record over his previous six appearances. And though Brey and those close to the program have embraced the season's successful journey to date – a one or two-and-out appearance won't satisfy this mentally tough, veteran crew nor its still wary fan base.
"When we went to Orlando (the Old Spice Classic in November), we were amazingly hungry, and very poor," Brey said of the team's national standing. "We're pretty rich now. We've gotten individual honors, people have talked about us – rightfully so.
"I said the true winners and successes at life, the people that do it at a high level; that you guys read about – while they're doing it and being successful, they still wake up every morning and say, ‘Whose butt do I kick today?'
"It's a frame of mind for us moving forward."
Today vs. Akron, that mindset takes on 30 seasons of Program Tournament Purgatory.
The Irish have reached the Sweet 16 just twice since the program made regular appearances in the mid-70s through 1981.
At present, they're a great regular season team that's won nothing of tangible value. Brey's aware of that troubling notion, and though no coach places as much emphasis on the NCAA Tournament as does his modern fan base, he'll nonetheless use the reality as motivation – today, and over the next three weekends.
"We didn't win a regular season championship and we didn't win a tournament championship (in the Big East). We made a run at both of them and came up short.
"What are our net-cutting opportunities? We cut one set down in Orlando and had two in the regular season (plus) tournament that we didn't get, but now we have the Regional (in two weeks) and you have the whole ball of wax."
Looking too far ahead? Hardly.
"We're chasing the Chicago Invitational," Brey noted. "That's all we're chasing this weekend. Then smaller than that, chasing a first-round win vs. Akron.
"This group has a chip and an edge about them. Let's see if we can achieve winning Friday afternoon and see what that feels like, then we'll talk about the next (step)."
Notre Dame 80 Akron 66
Season Predictions: 19-6; 16-8-1 against the spread.