Exhale, Re-Focus, Let 'Er Rip

Our first look at the four-team Midwest Regional semifinals and finals to be played in Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena this weekend.

Notre Dame's overtime victory over Butler Saturday night in Columbus (Ohio) validated the squad's outstanding, record-setting regular season. As a result, a toss-up matchup with Wichita State looms Thursday night with the winner likely afforded the chance to carve its spot in the sport's tournament history thereafter.

Below is our initial preview of the four-team mini-bracket, as well as an examination of what a win would mean to the Irish program Thursday night and beyond.

MEET THE SHOCKERS
Notre Dame's initial foe Wichita State doesn't employ the high-tempo method preferred by the Irish but they're effective, consistent scorers nonetheless. The Shockers rank *28th in offensive efficiency (Notre Dame is No. 1, Kentucky No. 12, West Virginia No. 82) entering the Sweet 16, a ranking buoyed by an equally effective defense.

The Shockers are 31st nationally in effective field goal percentage defense (the number includes and weights three-point shots) ranking behind Kentucky (No. 1), Utah (No. 5), Louisville (No. 8), Oklahoma (No. 12), Gonzaga (No. 14), Arizona (No. 18), Michigan State (No. 25), and North Carolina (No. 28) among Sweet 16 qualifiers.

The list is notable in that Butler's defense, one that held the Irish to 55 points in regulation, finished No. 74 in effective field goal percentage while the Irish ranks third-to-last among remaining teams at No. 115. (More on that below.)

Wichita State's motto, "Play Angry" following last year's Round of 32 loss to Kentucky -- a game in which the Shockers entered undefeated with a No. 1 seed -- perpetuates in their defensive pressure.

Head coach Gregg Marshall's crew ranks 28th nationally in terms of forcing turnovers per possession, (Butler was 121st and created 13 by the Irish last Saturday) while exacerbating the situation for their opponents by rarely turning it over themselves -- the Shockers rank sixth nationally among teams protecting the basketball.

Notre Dame ranks third in that regard, trailing only Wisconsin among the remaining 16 squads.

Whichever team can create the most timely turnovers that lead to transition opportunities will have an edge Thursday night in this matchup of efficient backcourts.

Potential Elite 8 foes Kentucky and West Virginia offer disparate challenges.

And by "disparate" I mean, historically so.

THE KENTUCKY PROBLEM
A few statistics to illustrate Kentucky's defensive dominance in 2015:

-- Points allowed: #2
-- Defensive Efficiency: #1
-- Opponent Floor Percentage: #1 (Measures the fraction of a team’s possessions on which there is a scoring possession)
-- Opponent Effective FG Percentage: #1
-- Opponent Three-Point FG Percentage: #1
-- Opponent Two-Point FG Percentage: #1
-- Opponent True FG Percentage (2-pt., 3-pt, FT): #1
-- Blocks per game: #2
-- Offensive Rebounding Percentage: #5
-- Opponent Assist-to-Turnover ratio: #1
-- Average Scoring Margin: #1…a ludicrous plus-20.4 points per game more than foes

So there's that.

And oh yeah, 36-0.

The "Kentucky Problem" will be revisited Friday and Saturday if necessary.

BULLIES ON THE BLOCK
West Virginia ranks a hideous No. 305 (out of 351 teams) in Effective FG% defense, so how do Bob Huggins' Mountaineers hold foes to just 66.5 points per game?

By creating havoc, of course. West Virginia sits at No. 1 nationally in turnovers forced per game, an astounding 19.6 (Notre Dame ranks 274th with 11.3; Wichita State forces 13.3 while Kentucky takes it away 14 times per contest).

The clutch-and-grab Mountaineers are in direct contrast to John Calipari's Kentucky crew, a defense with the stated plan of running foes off the three-point line and not fouling.

In other words, if you're going to beat Kentucky, you have to hit two-point field goals to do so, and the massive tandem of junior Willie Cauley-Stein (7'0" 240 pounds) and freshman Karl-Anthony Towns (6'11" 250) await your potential forays to the paint.

They don't need to foul.

West Virginia? 351st out of 351 teams in terms of total fouls committed per game, a robust 23.3. Notre Dame comes in sixth-lowest nationally at 14.2, with Wichita State (16.7) and Kentucky (17 per contest).

The Mountaineers score nearly 28 percent of their points off turnovers according to ESPN Stats and Info, but if you can protect the rock, West Virginia becomes challenged on the offensive end.

Of note: Huggins' 2010 Mountaineers took down Calipari's 35-3 Wildcats in the 2010 Tournament's Elite 8, beating John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, et al, 73-66.

Huggins is 8-2 vs. Calipari in head-to-head meetings with matchups dating back to Cincinnati (Huggins) and Massachusetts/Memphis (Calipari) days.

The Wildcats are presently favored by 13 over the Mountaineers with Wichita State currently a two-point favorite over the Irish according to Sportsbook.com.

WHAT WOULD A WIN MEAN?
On Monday, ESPN college basketball writer Jeff Goodman posted his Sweet 16 team rankings, #16 through #1, in terms of each squad's current "pressure" index.

Not surprisingly, Wichita State, fresh off its win over state bully (and long-time matchup-dodger) Kansas ranks #16, at the bottom of the list, with the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats and their pursuit of history at the top.

Notre Dame comes in at No. 12 (West Virginia is No. 13 in the opinion-based ranking), but the reality is, no realistic Irish fan expected a Sweet 16 ride at the season's outset. The Irish surpassed all pre-season expectations.

It's not, however, the pre-season.

Expectations have long-been raised and Notre Dame's upcoming matchup against Wichita State Thursday affords the Irish a chance at the program's first Elite 8 appearance since losing to eventual national champion Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans in 1979.

In all likelihood, all-powerful Kentucky would follow suit.

In such case, one more win and Mike Brey's Fighting Irish are officially playing with house money…not to mention a shot at NCAA Tournament immortality.

One more win, and the eyes of the nation would be squarely on Notre Dame.

But first, a "Pick 'Em" game against the Wichita State Shockers and a program that earned a combined 65-5 mark (SIXTY-FIVE AND FIVE?!) over the last two basketball seasons.

One more win near the occlusion of an outstanding season is all any Irish or Shockers fan can ask for.

That, and a shot at college basketball immortality.


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