1 – The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Ah yes, the four best days of the sports calendar preceded by the three worst. Save for your fantasy football lineup, there’s nothing I want to know less than your sleeper choice from the South Region. As a result I’ll be on radio silence today through Monday (and I’m an avid sports talk channel changer as it is) to avoid hearing such drivel on my commutes.
Thursday’s wall-to-wall basketball, on the other hand, is Triple A+ fantastic, and I’d like to thank Notre Dame media relations for keeping the afternoon and evening open for my viewing pleasure. Now let’s work on that 3:30 interview access period Friday…
2 – Party Like It’s 2003? Mike Brey’s up and down, sixth-seeded Fighting Irish will face either Michigan (where’s Brady Hoke when you need him?) or Tulsa (kick the field goal, coach) on Friday in their first round NCAA Tournament contest. Should the Wolverines (favored by 3) clip the Golden Hurricanes Wednesday in Dayton’s “Play-in” contest it would present an additional challenge for Notre Dame.
That is: despite advancing to the Elite 8 last season, the Irish hoopsters haven’t defeated a Power Conference program (ACC, SEC, PAC-12, BIG 10, BIG 12, old BIG EAST) in an NCAA tournament game since…wait for it…2003.
2003? You bet, and it was a big one, an upset victory over Illinois to advance to the ’03 Sweet 16. Since, they’ve lost to Power Conference foes Washington State (2008), Florida State (2011), Iowa State (2013), and of course, Kentucky (2015).
Last year’s three-game run included wins vs. top tier mid-majors Butler and Wichita State, while all previous victories since defeating the Illini 13 tournaments ago have occurred vs. mid-majors as well: Northeastern (2015), Akron (2011), and George Mason (2008).
In other words, Go Tulsa!
3 – Confidence Chart: Keeping in mind the disparate upside potential of each, the following represents, in order, my confidence level for each member of Brey’s seven-man rotation entering tournament time. In other words, who am I most confident will play up to their own standards over the next week-plus?
-- Zach Auguste (barring foul trouble, he’ll play well)
-- Bonzie Colson (zero fear)
-- Rex Pflueger (defense-first role and mindsaet allows him to play unfettered by expectations)
-- V.J. Beachem (keep rollin’ rollin’ rollin’)
-- Demetrius Jackson (see below)
-- Steve Vasturia (ill-timed slump)
-- Matt Ryan (he’s a shooter, period. And if he’s missing, he’s not yet ready to contribute otherwise).
It’s clear something is physically holding Jackson back and he’s fighting through it. Notre Dame can win one game if my order plays out as typed…but not two. Jackson is the difference between one and two weekends of NCAA Tournament viability this month.
4 – We Interrupt This Little Tournament: To bring you Spring Football Practice. Such is life at Notre Dame and at least another dozen football-first programs across the nation, where daily intrigue revolves around backup Will and Mike linebackers more so than hoop dreams.
Spring 2016 is wide open and as a result, far more interesting than last year’s edition, though none of the myriad football position battles we’ll discuss this month are likely to be decided until August, though clubhouse leaders should emerge at MLB, WLB, LCB, SS, C, RG, RT, X and W Receiver – just not QB.
With the exception of quarterback and to a lesser extent LCB, each of the above remains in a state of “Show Me” limbo until further notice – at least if you’re looking for championship level play when the Irish touch down in Austin at September’s outset.
5 – You’re Hot and You’re Cold: Talking to a person close to the situation, the Irish coaching staff is relieved to have the task of getting the slumping Vasturia on track rather than last year’s lost cause of restoring Beachem’s post-season confidence. One year after an inexplicable disappearing act, Beachem is the junior swingman playing the best ball of his life while his normally steady classmate Vasturia has to right the shooting ship.
Still, the latter’s shots may go in or bounce out this weekend, but his overall game doesn’t have to be greatly impacted by a shooting slump.
6 – 40 Minutes of Hell, Averted?: Is there a chance Mike Brey expands his rotation back to eight to allow backup point guard Matt Farrell a chance to aid the Irish vs. “Press Virginia” and a potential second round matchup with Bob Huggins and the vicious West Virginia Mountaineers full-court press?
Farrell looked the part (loose and confident) in an unexpected 20-minute outing to conclude the regular season vs. North Carolina State. He can protect the ball off the bounce, see the floor, and purportedly shoot it – all key ingredients to beating a press and then making the defense pay in resulting scramble situations. Ten to 15 minutes from Farrell (spelling various players) could ease Jackson’s game burden.
7 – I’ll Take a Shot: Kansas or Miami from the South; North Carolina or Kentucky from the East; Michigan State from the Midwest; and holy cow the West Region is weak! I'll assume a lower seed finds its way to the Elite 8, if not the Final Four as a result. Or as I like to point out annually: Anybody but Duke…
8 – A Mixed Bag: Ranking Notre Dame’s Best Games (level of play only) of the Brey Era:
- Underdogs by a whopping 11 points, a 68-66 loss to Kentucky, 2015 Elite 8. Notre Dame was perhaps the fourth or fifth-best team in America last year and it played above that level against the then invincible Wildcats.
- As a two-point underdog, a 81-70 drubbing of Wichita State, 2015 Sweet 16. Absolute and unforeseen dominance in the second stanza by Brey’s surging Irish.
- As a six-point underdog, beating No. 4 seed Illinois 68-60 to advance to the 2003 Sweet 16. The Dan Miller show!
- Favored by two points, losing a 67-63 heartbreaker vs. Xavier, 2013 1st Round. Remarkably, Jerian Grant played the role of Goat, stepping across the top of the key as teammate Eric Atkins HIT his first of two bonus free throws to draw within a point.
- Favored by 3.5 points, escaping 67-64, in overtime against Butler, 2015 2nd Round. Pat Connaughton’s balls-out block for the ages.
And the Flip Side:
- A 140-26 loss (it felt like that) to Iowa State, 2013 1st Round (Irish were a one-point Dog). I’m not sure if Iowa State was playing with six or ND was playing with four. Or both…
- A 35-6 (it felt like that) loss to Washington State, 2008 2nd Round (Irish were a 2.5-point Dog). ND could have played for six halves and not topped 50 points that afternoon (a 61-41 loss) to Tony Bennett’s Cougars.
- A 71-57 loss (it felt worse) to Florida State, 2012 2nd Round (Irish were favored by 6). Bad offense, worse defense, and a terrible end to a great season.
- A 50-48 loss (the actual score) to impotent Old Dominion, 2011 1st Round (Irish favored by 2.5). Old Dominion is the worst team to prevail in an NCAA Tournament game that I watched from start to finish. Ever.
- A 74-64 loss to Winthrop, 2007 1st Round (Irish favored by 3.5). The only thing worse was listening to excuses surrounding this one.
9 – Opening Weekend: I maintain the right to change my mind after, you know, watching spring practices and all of August Camp. Game One and only Game One projections below:
Top “Bench” Contributors, in order: Zaire, Folston, St. Brown, Sanders, D. Williams, Boykin, Claypool, Weishar…
Rush End: Trumbetti
Big End: Rochell
Dime: Tranquill (insert Sebastian at SS)
Top Bench Contributors, in order: Sebastian, Cage, Jay Hayes, Bonner…Donte Vaughn.
Until Next Week (if not sooner), Irish fans…