CLEVELAND – Notre Dame (32-5) is in the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979. A victory tonight over No. 1-ranked Kentucky (37-0) would send the Irish to the Final Four for the first time since Digger Phelps led the 1977-78 squad to St. Louis, where the Irish lost to Duke and Kentucky claimed the national title.
• Game 38: No. 1 Kentucky (37-0) vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (32-5)
• Place: Quicken Loans Arena; Cleveland, Ohio
• Time: 8:49 p.m. ET
• Conference: Southeastern
• Location: Lexington, Ky.
• Nickname: Wildcats
• 2013-14 record: 29-11 (12-6 in SEC)
John Calipari, 56, is bidding for his sixth trip to the Final Four. He took Massachusetts in 1996, finished runner-up at Memphis in 2008, and has gone three times with Kentucky, losing the first game of the Final Four in 2011, finishing runner-up last year, and winning in 2012.
Calipari’s first head-coaching job on the collegiate level came at Massachusetts, where he was 189-70 in eight seasons. He then coached the New Jersey Nets for two seasons and part of a third, finishing with a 72-112 record.
He led Memphis to a 214-67 mark in nine seasons, and then moved on to Lexington, where he has compiled an astonishing 189-37 mark, including 35-3 in 2009-10, 38-2 in 2011-12, and 37-0 with a shot at 40-0 in 2014-15.
Now in its 112th season, the Wildcats have 2,177 wins, the most in NCAA history. This is Kentucky’s 54th NCAA tournament appearance. Their 119 NCAA tournament victories are the most all-time. This is the Wildcats’ 12th No. 1 seed. Under John Calipari, Kentucky is 21-3 in the NCAA tournament.
NOTRE DAME VS. KENTUCKY
The Wildcats hold a 42-19 all-time record against Notre Dame, including a 2-0 mark in the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame won the last meeting at Purcell Pavilion, 64-50, in November of 2012. Kentucky has won 11 of the last 13 meetings with the Irish.
BREY ON APPROACH VS. KENTUCKY
“For us, we’ve done a good job controlling tempo and understanding how to play. We want to run. We started running in Greensboro and we were running and attacking (Wichita State). Everybody thinks we’re just this three-point shooting team, but in Greensboro, we were driving the ball down everybody’s throat. Then we made a couple threes that were kind of dagger-kind of threes. So we can play either way.
“With (Kentucky), you’ve got to control tempo. Run sometimes, and then sometimes a patient offensive possession where we spread the floor, make their big guys come out and chase us, and where we spread people out.
“I sure hope we can get into a flow. It’s going to be harder for us to get into a flow. We’re the most efficient offensive team in the country; they’re the best defensive team in the country. It’s exciting to see how this thing plays out over 40 minutes.”
BREY ON COMPETING BUT NOT WINNING
“We’ll be very disappointed if we don’t win. I know we’re double-digit underdogs, but our locker room…we’ll be on the floor. Connaughton and Grant will be a mess if we don’t win. No question.”
CALIPARI ON KENTUCKY
“We coach every player on this team like a starter. We don’t have subs; we have reinforcements. Teams say, ‘All right, we got ‘em,’ and (they) look up and here comes 12 tanks over the hill. That’s what we’ve been doing.
“I don’t know if somebody has to play a perfect game (to beat us). My team knows that every team left can beat us. Somebody talked about perfection. We’re not perfect; we’re undefeated. We should have lost five or six games, easily could have lost those games, and we were lucky enough to win and stay undefeated. We’re not perfect.
“But someone would have to play well the way they play. The great thing is our team is not worried about that. We just don’t want to help ‘em. So let’s make sure we’re at our best, that we’re the best version of ourselves.”
CALIPARI ON NOTRE DAME
“They’re one of the best two-point shooting teams and they’re one of the best three-point shooting teams. They’re one of the most efficient teams in the country. They score in bunches. They can score at the rim, lay-ups, post-ups, breakdowns…
“What I’ve seen in their last five games is they’re really defending. They’re playing more physical, they’re playing tougher, their rotations are tighter…That’s why they’ve gone on this run because now, they can get to 75, 80 points and they make it hard for you to do it.
“This is a one-game shot and (Brey has) his guys playing as well as they’ve ever played. It should be a great basketball game. It’s going to be a very hard game for us because of how they play and how they spread the court. They’re defending better and they’re not afraid to let (shots) go. They’ve got guys that will attack the rim. This is going to be a hard game.”
KEY KENTUCKY PERSONNEL
There is no team in the country quite like Kentucky in terms of size, depth and talent. Head coach John Calipari said he was prepared to go with a shorter bench in 2014-15 until four players returned to the fold instead of turning pro.
Thus, rather than try to rotate nine or 10 players through over the course of games, he chose to come at opponents in four- and five-man waves. When the game is close – and it rarely is – Calipari favors nine players in particular.
Kentucky overwhelms with size, led by 7-foot-0, 242-pound junior Willie Cauley-Stein, who averages 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in less than 26 minutes. He shoots 57.7 percent from the field and paces the team in offensive rebounds with 87, although it’s 6-foot-11, 250-pound Karl-Anthony Towns who has maximized his time the best among the bigs.
Towns averages just 20.7 minutes per game – which ranks seventh on the squad – although he has just one less offensive rebound than Cauley-Stein while averaging 9.7 points and 6.7 rebounds. Towns converts 55.2 percent of his shots.
Alex Poythress, a 6-foot-8, 235-pound junior, started ahead of 6-foot-10, 235-pound freshman Trey Lyles until a season-ending knee injury pushed Lyles into the starting lineup. Lyles is sixth on the team in scoring at 8.7 points per game while rebounding at a 5.4 clip.
The fourth ultra-big in the rotation is 7-foot-0, 255-pound sophomore Dakari Johnson, who plays less than 17 minutes per game but averages 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Kentucky’s leading scorer is 6-foot-6, 212-pound sophomore Aaron Harrison, who averages 11.1 points and paces the Wildcats in three-pointers with 58. He is converting just 39.4 percent of his field-goal attempts and an anemic 31.7 percent of his three-point shots.
Aaron is more of the scoring/shooting half of the Harrison twins with Andrew, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound sophomore, leading Kentucky in assists at 3.6 per game while averaging 9.3 points. Andrew Harrison shares ball-distribution duties with 5-foot-9 freshman Tyler Ulis, who averages 3.7 assists.
Kentucky’s three-point shooting mainly comes from Aaron Harrison and 6-foot-6, 206-pound freshman Devin Booker, who converts an impressive 40.6 percent of his three-pointers. Booker averages 10.1 points per game. Andrew Harrison (35 three-pointers) and Ulis (30) are the other options from distance.
The Wildcats are a quality free-throw shooting team with six members of the nine-man rotation shooting a minimum of 73 percent (Lyles) through 83 percent (Booker). Kentucky boasts an impressive 538-to-391 assist-to-turnover ratio. Even more impressive is the 516 turnovers they’ve forced compared to the 275 assists by the opposition.
NOTRE DAME-KENTUCKY PREVIEW
The notion that Notre Dame has to play perfectly in order to defeat Kentucky may be overblown because there were several games during the season in which opponents didn’t play perfectly against the Wildcats and had an opportunity to win.
Seven teams – Mississippi, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Florida, LSU and Georgia – came within single digits of the Wildcats. Mississippi and Texas A&M took Kentucky into overtime in back-to-back games in early January. Vanderbilt trailed by four with 2:19 remaining. Florida was down two with 1:05 left. LSU led more than half of the game and had a 21-2 run. Georgia led by two with 4:22 remaining.
Perhaps a more accurate depiction would be that Notre Dame needs Kentucky to play one of their lesser games, which, of course, the Irish would have to coerce. To do that, there’s little doubt the Irish will have to shoot well from three-point range, which means penetrating the lane, finishing a few of those drives, spacing the court, kicking it out to the three-point line and getting good looks before Kentucky’s length converges. Opponents have made just 164-of-615 three-point shots (26.7 percent), which ranks second nationally.
Where the Irish have to be close to perfection is on the defensive end of the floor, and that’s particularly problematic for a team that is so limited in a) size and b) depth. Kentucky plays four bigs – 7-foot-0 Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-foot-10 Trey Lyles, 6-foot-11 Karl-Anthony Towns and 7-foot-0 Dakari Johnson – who come at teams in waves, tidal waves.
Zach Auguste, at 6-foot-10, 242 pounds, is Notre Dame’s only true big man that has been a regular part of the rotation. Bonzie Colson, at 6-foot-5, 226 pounds, plays the role of big man while 6-foot-5, 218-pound Pat Connaughton is Notre Dame’s top rebounder at 7.3 per game.
Foul trouble is a concern, something Kentucky doesn’t even have to consider. Austin Torres, a 6-foot-7, 228-pound sophomore, is the eighth man in rotation. Other potential bigs, should foul trouble force Mike Brey to dip deeper into his bench, include 6-foot-9, 228-pound junior Austin Burgett and 6-foot-9, 255-pound freshman Martin Geben. But neither has played significant minutes since early in the season.
The Irish are going to have to dance with who brought them to the Elite Eight, and that means that the backcourt of Jerian Grant and Demetrius Jackson, Auguste, Connaughton and Colson, swingman/defensive stopper Steve Vasturia, and shooter V.J. Beachem must do most of the heavy lifting against the Wildcats.
Brey likely will surrender two-pointers and guard against threes, despite the fact Kentucky averages just 5.3 three-pointers per game, which ranks 273rd nationally. Brey likes the percentages of exchanged threes for twos, although Kentucky could shred Notre Dame’s interior in the process. That’s a chance Brey is willing to take while banking on Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency kicking in, at least at crunch time.
Of great concern is Kentucky’s ability to play volleyball on the glass. Several Irish opponents have hurt them on the offensive backboards this year, and this has the makings of a game in which the Wildcats approach and perhaps even exceed 20 offensive rebounds.
Notre Dame has proven that it can withstand high offensive-rebound totals, but that’s usually tied to its own high percentage of three-point conversions, which is tough to do against Kentucky.
Some have said Notre Dame needs about a dozen or more three-pointers to win this game. Only one team this season – Mississippi State in late February – converted double-digit three-pointers against the Wildcats, and that was 11 in an 18-point loss. No other team has made more than nine. In 31 of its 37 games, Kentucky has allowed six three-pointers or less.
There is the notion that the Irish are playing with “house money” by reaching the Elite Eight, and by running into the wall that is the 2014-15 Kentucky basketball team, just getting to this game will be satisfaction enough. Brey countered that by saying the Irish will be stretched out on the locker room floor in agony if the dream comes to an end tonight.
If Notre Dame finds a way to win this game, the 2014-15 season will officially become the greatest in its basketball history with the Irish making their second Final Four appearance all-time and first since Digger Phelps led Notre Dame to St. Louis 37 years ago.
Notre Dame is not the most difficult match-up for Kentucky. Wisconsin, Arizona, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Louisville may be better candidates to pull off the upset against the Wildcats, some more than others. Only Notre Dame has the opportunity to do it tonight.
There’s no denying the Irish are a team that’s touched and a team playing with plenty of magic. Over the course of 40 minutes, and perhaps even beyond, do the Irish have what it takes to pull off what some would consider a miracle?
Some have cited Notre Dame’s victory over No. 1-ranked UCLA in 1974 – ending the Bruins’ 88-game winning streak – as proof/inspiration that the Irish can do it again. There’s always the possibility, however, that Kentucky is so good, a more apt comparison might be the result of Notre Dame vs. Alabama on the gridiron in the 2012 national championship game.
• Pointspread: Kentucky by 11 ½
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Kentucky 79, Notre Dame 66
• Season record: 25-12 straight up; 15-14 vs. points