Back on Track?

Both Notre Dame and Xavier scuffled at the end of the regular season. One will reinvigorate with a win Friday night in Greensboro.

A 9-game winning streak from mid-January through mid-February propelled an overachieving Notre Dame team to its 32nd NCAA Tournament appearance. But since that sterling streak, the harsh truth is that Mike Brey's squad has scuffled, playing poorly throughout a 2-3 finish en route to a #7 seed and matchup with perennial Tournament darling, Xavier.

Below is a brief introduction to the Musketeers, another team carrying little-to-no momentum into the weekend, along with key factors for Notre Dame to get back on track and avoid an early exit from a Dance to which it fought tooth and nail to earn an invitation.

"Just a Gansta' I Suppose"

The quote above, uttered by Avon Barksdale from The Wire, was unfortunately echoed by Xavier senior guard Tu Holloway in the wake of his team's brawl (and victory – on the scoreboard, not the fight) over Cincinnati at the Cintas Center in mid-December.

"That's what you gonna see from Xavier and Cincinnati," said Holloway following the incident. "We got disrespected a little bit; guys calling us out. We're a tougher team. We have grown men over here. We gotta whole buncha gansters in our locker room. Not thugs, but tough guys on the court. And we went out there and zipped them up at the end of the game, and that's our motto: ‘Zip ‘em up.'"

Since, the then 8th-ranked Musketeers haven't had much room to talk, post-game or otherwise, winning a touch over half of their 25 post-brawl battles (13 wins/12 losses) while Cincinnati rebounded to win 19 of its final 26 games heading into this weekend.

As losers of three of its last five, Notre Dame doesn't head into Friday's contest with much momentum. Xavier has markedly less, losing the conference final to St. Bonaventure in a lopsided contest and never winning more than three straight games since the brawl.

The Musketeers haven't played a ranked team since beating #18 Vanderbilt on November 28. Cincinnati is 2-7 vs. teams in the Field of 68 since the brawl; 3-0 previously.

Grantkins

Grant has missed 38 of his last 49 shots, with more than half of hit attempts coming from long range. Atkins is just 14 of 43 over the same span with neither guard scoring more than 12 points over the last five contests.

The Irish can win if Cooley is slightly below average. They can win if either Alex Dragicevich or Pat Connaughton is off-the-mark. And they can win with Scott Martin scoring eight points on six shots. But Notre Dame can't beat anyone in the NCAA Tournament if its backcourt combo doesn't rediscover its shooting touch and aggressiveness for the next 40, to 80, to 120 game minutes.

The Irish need their youthful backcourt tandem to rediscover the confidence and late-game magic that propelled Notre Dame past Louisville, Connecticut, West Virginia, and Villanova after trailing by 20 – all away from home – earlier this season.

Martin's Ceiling

Attempted 56 field goals over the last five contests (the Irish finished 2-3, Martin connected on a solid 26), this after shooting just 69 times in the team's nine game winning streak. As the ultimate "glue guy" Martin best serves the Irish shooting fewer than 10 times per game, with most of his offerings on short post turnarounds or mid-range J's in the flow of the offense. If a three-pointer presents itself, the senior still needs the green light, though his 16 for 63 shooting effort from beyond the arc in conference play suggests otherwise.

Notre Dame won with solid team defense, better-than-expected rebounding, and a patient half-court offense that played quickly when the opportunity presented this season. Martin was a centerpiece in each and will need to be again this weekend in Greensboro.

Focus, Finish

Jack Cooley's final five games offered a hodgepodge: a dominant effort to close the regular season vs. Providence, one preceded by a no-show (0 rebounds) in a frustrating loss at Georgetown.

One game prior, Cooley was one of two Irish regulars to play well (18 points on nine shots with 11 rebounds) in the team's streak-snapping loss at St. John's.

He struggled in two showings in Manhattan, too. A poor outing vs. South Florida in a quarterfinals victory was followed the next night by 11 points and 11 boards - but a frustrating number of easy misses early that could have kept the Irish within striking distance. Exacerbating the situation, Cardinals center Gorgi Deng didn't miss any of his eight shots in Louisville's blowout win.

Cooley will be the best big man on the court Friday night. His ability to fight for post position (and re-post when denied), maintain concentration and effort on the glass, and regain his touch around the rack will play a key role in Notre Dame's quest to advance.

Pat to the Paint

Free throws attempted by freshman swingman Pat Connaughton over the last seven outings: 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 6, 0…

Early season Connaughton was a revelation – a true freshman that attacked the rim offensively and after every shot (opponents' and teammates' alike). After going 9 of 19 from long range in four wins vs. Syracuse, UConn, Seton Hall, and Marquette, then adding another seven three-point bombs in a comeback special at Villanova, Connaughton officially fell victim to the Siren's Song of the arc.

Connaughton is at his best attacking the glass, fading to the corner in Notre Dame's Burn offense for the occasionally three, but in constant motion as a cutter after high post entry passes. If he remembers he's an athlete and a basketball player – not a three-point specialist – the Irish will have a much better chance of outlasting Xavier on Friday.


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