Step One

Notre Dame's goal shifts from winning their league to winning the next 80 minutes of playoff basketball.

Still delirious in the midst of confetti, the requisite musical stylings of Queen that accompany a newly-crowned champion, and basking in the glow of much-deserved national limelight, Notre Dame's best player reminded teammates, media, ACC officials, and revelers alike that the Irish season had not yet reached its climax.

"Not done yet! Not done yet!" Grant shouted as he and the Irish celebrated their first conference championship Saturday night in Greensboro.

Not Done Yet.

With two exceptions over the first 14 seasons of the Mike Brey era, the dark decade that preceded it, and the final nine seasons of the Digger Phelps era, the Notre Dame men's basketball program was, for all intents and purposes, just that, at this point in March.


Dead Men Walking. One, perhaps two steps from falling off the proverbial plank. Sacrificial lambs for the likes of Arkansas Little-Rock, Winthrop, Old Dominion, and the like.

Old Dominion.

Routed more often than they rallied. Summarily dismissed.

Not this team. Not this year.

That's what we, they, and most nationally believe to be true. But the heavy lifting is about to begin, starting with the first official tip-off of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, 12:15 (ET) from Pittsburgh on Thursday when the Irish will take on No. 14 seed Northeastern.

The winner gets either No. 6 Butler -- national runner-up in both 2011 and 2012 -- or No. 11 seed Texas on Saturday afternoon. It's a Longhorns team blessed with enough (undeveloped) talent to be ranked No. 10 in the A.P. pre-season poll.

Notre Dame's opening foe Northeastern shoots it well, ranking 22nd nationally in effective field goal percentage -- notable in that the Irish rank first in the statistic that combines 2-pt., and 3-pt. FG percentage, weighting the latter -- and the Huskies are able to defend their own backboard, collecting 76.9 percent of missed shots by opponents, a number that ranks 15th nationally compared to the middling Irish at 185th (70.6 percent).

The Huskies shoot it well from beyond the arc (25th nationally at 38.8%; the Irish are 18th at 39.2%), but Northeastern chooses to do so judiciously -- only 30.8 percent of their field goal attempts this winter were from long range (credit Eamon Brennan, for the latter).

Notre Dame defended the arc relatively well this season, allowing 32.9 percent.

Who's Next?: Potential second-round foes Butler and Texas offer similar challenges. Like Northeastern, the sixth-seeded Bulldogs are among the best at cleaning the defensive glass, corralling 77.3 percent of their foes misses.

(In case you're wondering about the relevance and/or game impact of the statistic, #2 seed Arizona, #1 seed Wisconsin, and #2 seed Virginia rank first, third, and fourth nationally in the category.)

Butler pressures the ball defensively under first-year head coach Chris Holtmann and is conscious of the arc, limiting opponents to just over 30 percent shooting from long range (24th nationally).

(*Head coach Brandon Miller, Brad Stevens' replacement after the latter accepted the position with the Boston Celtics in 2013, stepped down due to an illness prior to the 2014-15 season. It was Stevens that took the Bulldogs to consecutive NCAA Finals appearances.)

The Devil is in Their Defense: No. 11 seed Texas ranks fourth nationally in effective field goal percentage (Kentucky is No. 1; Virginia No. 3), limiting opponents to a combined 42.2 percent shooting effort on 2-pt., and 3-pt. field goal attempts.

The Longhorns rank first nationally (ahead of Kentucky and Virginia) in 2-pt. FG percentage, holding foes to just 37.8 percent inside the arc, and Texas played in what was likely the nation's best conference, the grueling round-robin that is the Big 12.

Of note: Texas blocked more shots (7.9 per game) than any team in America and topped the second-best in that regard -- undefeated Kentucky -- in block percentage, 14 percent compared to 12.7 percent. (Notre Dame blocked 6.1% of its opponents shots.)

The 'Horns though give it up a bit more generously from beyond the arc: 200th nationally in defensive 3-pt. percentage. (The Irish rank 93rd for the sake of comparison.)

Disparate Paths to the Dance: The Huskies did not face a team ranked among the RPI Top 50. They finished 3-4 vs. squads ranked 51-100, winning at Richmond and twice beating William & Mary (in three meetings), the latter to claim the Colonial Athletic championship on William & Mary's home floor.

Northeastern lost to Massachusetts by 25 points -- just four days after the Irish handled the Minutemen, 81-68 at Mohegan Sun Arenas -- and also fell at NCAA Tournament qualifier Harvard by 14.

-- Texas lost 13 times though just one of those defeats was to a team ranked outside the RPI Top 50, a remarkable statistic. They however won in just three such instances, beating Baylor (by 2), West Virginia (by 27) and at Connecticut, 55-54 in November.

The Longhorns hosted Kentucky earlier this season and kept it relative close, falling 63-51 in a contest tied at the half. Texas was ranked No. 6 heading into this December 5 matchup with the Wildcats.

-- Butler finished 6-8 vs. the RPI Top 50, beating North Carolina in Chapel Hill in late November as the season's signature win. (The Bulldogs also downed Georgetown, St. John's twice, Xavier, and won at Providence on March 7. The Friars beat Notre Dame by a point in mid-November.)

Butler nearly upset No. 1 seed Villanova at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, losing 68-65 on Valentine's Day.

Two wins separate Notre Dame from a potential four-team Sweet 16 mini-pool that will likely include two of the sport's five most storied programs, undefeated Kentucky and *11-time defending Big 12 Conference Champion Kansas.

(*Eleven in a row?!)

Potential underdogs to reach the Sweet 16 against the ND/Butler/Texas survivor are No. 7 seed Wichita State (champing at the bit to finally get at the Jayhawks, a potential second-round matchup) and No. 10 seed Indiana.

Any member of Kentucky's pending chum -- No. 8 Cincinnati or No. 9 Purdue, plus likely either No. 5 West Virginia or No. 4 Maryland -- would be welcomed with opened arms by every team in the bottom half of the Midwest Region in the Wildcats unlikely stead.

But first, the Irish have two 40-minute battles from which to emerge -- the latter likely much more difficult than the former.

-- Upstart Northeastern
-- Confident, sound, and gritty Butler
-- Talented, enigmatic, and dangerous Texas.

Time to prove they're not done yet. Top Stories