With the play-in games of the NCAA tournament underway – including the Michigan-Tulsa game Wednesday night to determine who gets a crack at No. 6 seed Notre Dame – we called upon two former Irish basketball players who have become prominent in the media.
LaPhonso Ellis (1988-92) stands 15th on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list with 1,505 points and 1,075 rebounds, the latter of which ranks fourth in Irish history. He was one of four captains on the 1991-92 squad.
Ellis, who has done studio and game analysis for ESPN, is a rising star in the business. A fixture in the ESPN2 studio, look for Ellis to be elevated to analyst work for ESPN during the NCAA tournament and beyond.
Cornette (2001-05), who captained the Irish his last two seasons at Notre Dame, was a member of Mike Brey’s first squad to reach the Sweet 16 (2002-03). Cornette had 201 blocked shots in his career to rank No. 1 on the all-time Notre Dame list – one blocked shot ahead of No. 2 Ellis.
Cornette serves as host of Campus Insiders and is a CBS Sports Network analyst.
ELLIS ON NOTRE DAME FIRST ROUND
“I see them playing Michigan and that’s a good matchup for us, but it’s not easy and it will be a really good game.
“Michigan plays with some really good pace. With Caris LeVert, they look to get out in transition. Zak Irvin, (Muhammad-Ali Abdur) Rachman, those guys can beat you off the bounce, they’re good in ball-screen situations, and really good in transition.
“They’re basically like one of Mike Brey’s old teams as far as pushing the pace, shooting threes, and getting to the rim. If you take that away, they’ll move you around with a two-guard front, and then look to set a ball screen to get in the gap and force you to react.
“Their three-point percentage in conference play is better than it is for the season, which makes them deadly.
“There is a flip side. (Michigan big man Mark) Donnal is not bad, but Zach Auguste should be able to have his way with anybody on the interior, as long as we’re intentional about getting the ball inside. I think sometimes, when we have a mismatch inside, we don’t go to him enough.
“I expect Bonzie Colson to have success, too. My view on Colson is he’s pretty much on autopilot. Worst-case scenario, he’ll get you 12 and seven. Best-case scenario, he’ll get you 20 and 10.
“Bonzie is a plug-and-play guy. I know what I’m going to get from him every night. If we get one of those magical 30-point games from him, great.”
CORNETTE ON NOTRE DAME FIRST ROUND
“In the ACC tournament, it was all about the turnovers, other than the great comeback against Duke. There’s your story for a team that averages single-digit turnovers with one of the nation’s most efficient offenses.
“The ability to protect the basketball has been lost a little bit. All uncharacteristic stuff, and that’s a concern when you look ahead to the second round for a potential matchup against West Virginia.
“Having said that, I have big faith in the program and team. I think it’s a very good team. North Carolina is a Final Four caliber team and we met them at the wrong time. But I’ll always have faith in a team like Notre Dame to go far because of the things they do offensively, because of high IQ guys, and because of how good they are at not letting the moment overtake them.
“They never show too much emotion if they’re down or winning, so I think a survive-and-advance tournament is something that plays well to the mentality of the team.
“Michigan and Tulsa are two teams that have no business being in this tournament and two teams that I think we match up against nicely, whoever comes out of that one. I’ll go with coaching on that. I think Michigan comes out of that one.
“But I’m a big believer in the first four teams having an advantage as opposed to a disadvantage. They get to play one game in the one-and-done scenario. You get that game under your belt. I don’t think you’re as tense coming into it while the other team is just warming up.
“Demetrius Jackson should be able to carve up that defense and Zach Auguste should be able to take the milk money from that frontline at Michigan. We have the advantage to pursue twos more than Michigan does.”
ELLIS ON NOTRE DAME SECOND ROUND
“West Virginia will be a difficult matchup for us. We’ve not seen a team that presses like they press, and they press the entire game. That pressure is real and it’s random.
“That’s one of the down sides of having a smaller guard in Demetrius Jackson. (Jonathan) Holton is 6-foot-7 with long arms. If they trap Demetrius, the other guys will have to make sure they’re available. Once we get it through the first wave, we have to attack because another (wave) is coming.
“Bob Huggins’ philosophy is your starting five may be better than my starting five, but your 10 is not as good as my 10, and he plays all 10.
“They either lead the nation or are second in the nation in bench points. (Jaysean) Paige comes off the bench and averages about 14 or 15 points a game.
“One of my focal points when I call Notre Dame games is to neutralize Demetrius. Demetrius provides 37 percent of our offense -- scoring and assisting. If he doesn’t give us 17 points, five assists and a few rebounds, we lose.
“Almost every game in ACC play, when he’s been held to poor shooting and his scoring is eight, 10, 12 points, we usually lose. I think there was one game in February where he had 20-plus and we lost.
“The simple reality is we’re not reversing it two or three times and getting good ball movement. We’ve almost become like an NBA team – a pound-it, ball-screen offense.
“With Demetrius handling the ball all the time, if we reverse the floor and get him off the ball and get him moving around, that will free him up and he’ll have one of those great nights, and when he’s great, we’re great.
“I expect Demetrius to have a great NCAA tournament, and if he’s great, we can get to the Sweet 16.”
CORNETTE ON NOTRE DAME SECOND ROUND
“West Virginia thrives on the turnover. They go deep into their bench with nine guys. Their best scorer, Jaysean Paige, comes off the bench. Devin Williams down low creates second-chance opportunities.
“It’s an incredibly physical team that disrupts what the opponent does for 40 minutes. It’s always a battle to control the tempo of the game with West Virginia. The teams that have been able to ride the wave and say, ‘No, we’re not going to give in to how you guys want to play the game; we’re going to manage the game the way we want to play it’ are the teams that have success against West Virginia.
“It’s going to come down to the first four minutes of the game. That will determine what kind of game it’s going to be. If Notre Dame can maintain control the first four minutes, they have a good shot at beating West Virginia. But it’s a very, very tough matchup for Notre Dame.
“You’ll get a good taste for what Notre Dame is in the first-round matchup. If they still seem erratic and can’t take care of the basketball like the ACC tournament, I don’t like them against West Virginia. But if they come out and play cerebral ball and look like they’ve got everything under control, they’ve got a good shot in the second round.
“West Virginia is not a great offensive team. They have a heavy reliance on their defense translating into offense. If you’re not going to guard them and they’re scoring, when West Virginia is hitting shots and playing their defense, they can beat teams like Kansas.
“It’s not a game where I’d write Notre Dame off. Let’s see how the Irish play the first game of the tournament. West Virginia is a Final Four-type team and that’s a daunting task.
“Am I closing the book on Notre Dame’s season? Absolutely not, but Notre Dame also is in the toughest bracket in the tournament, no question.”
ELLIS ON TOURNAMENT SLEEPERS
“I have one bracket buster and it’s (No. 11 seed) Northern Iowa over Texas. Shaka Smart said Cam Ridley would play 15 to 20 minutes, but I still have Northern Iowa beating Texas and Texas A&M, and then Oklahoma beating Northern Iowa.”
CORNETT ON TOURNAMENT SLEEPERS
“People like Iowa State, but I’ve got the 13 seed – Iona -- knocking them off in a game with a lot of offense. A.J. English III for Iona will be the most talented player on the floor, even more so than (Iowa State’s) Georges Niang. I think Iona will get past Iowa State and Purdue and into the Sweet 16.
“I’ve got No. 12 Yale knocking off No. 5 Baylor. They’re rugged and physical. Justin Sears, a 6-foot-8 senior, will negate Rico Gathers.”
ELLIS: FINAL FOUR
“My Final Four is Kansas from the South, Oklahoma from the West, North Carolina from the East and Michigan State from the Midwest with Kansas beating Michigan State in the championship.”
CORNETTE: FINAL FOUR
“I like a lot of 1 seeds. I have Virginia going to the Final Four. Everyone is saying Michigan State beats Virginia and goes to the Final Four, like that’s a foregone conclusion.
“I get it. It’s Tom Izzo. Denzel Valentine is probably the nation’s player of the year. They’re great offensively, they rebound and they defend. It’s a great team.
“But nobody is giving this Virginia team any respect, and Malcolm Brogdon is a name not enough people respect as the ACC player of the year. Anthony Gill is a fantastic player.
“I have Oregon coming out of the West with West Virginia in the East. I think Kansas is the most talented team and they’re my national champion over Virginia in the finals.”