"Our guys reacted like they've reacted all year," head coach Mike Brey said. "Our group is business-like. I got on them a couple of times this year because I thought they should have been more excited in our home locker room. It's business as usual."
"We're very business-like this year," senior captain Colin Falls said. "Maybe if we make a run deep into the tournament, you'll see more emotion. When we play, we show a lot of emotion. But we're not going to get excited about something we expected."
The 24-7 Irish are returning to the Big Dance for the first time since 2003. Notre Dame won six in a row before losing to Georgetown in the Big East Semifinals on Friday. Their reward for a season of success is a trip across the country to play a team many have labeled this year's version of George Mason. Several ‘bracketologists" had the Irish pegged as a fifth or fourth seed because of the late-season surge and a 11-5 conference record. But the selection committee differed a bit from these projections.
"You can complain about anything," Brey said. "At this point, you can throw those numbers away and look at the match-ups. We're in and we have access. We've lived without access and it's tough. No matter what number is by your name, you're going to have a tough game."
"As far as seeding goes, you'll have to play a good team first round anyways," Falls said. "You have to beat good teams to advance."
The slight difference of opinion on the seeding question actually might help Notre Dame. The Irish can now use the "disrespect" card and play with something extra to prove in the NCAA Tournament. It's how they've done it this season. Picked to finish 11th in the Big East, Notre Dame used the scoring of Falls and Russell Carter and the invaluable contributions from freshmen Tory Jackson and Luke Harangody to lift them back to prominence. They enter the Big Dance with momentum and the seeding possibly gives them a little extra incentive.
"We've been good with a chip on our shoulder," Brey said. "I told them we'll be the upset pick this year. Winthrop, rightfully so, is talked about because they're good. They're tournament tested. They had Tennessee beat last year. The most important thing is that we're playing well and with great chemistry. We've having fun playing. More than anything on a scouting report, that's the most important thing."
Winthrop will be a challenge. The Eagles have won 18 games in a row and last lost way back on January 2nd to Texas A&M 71-51. Their four defeats have come to the Aggies, North Carolina, Maryland and Wisconsin. That's a number one, two, three and four seed in the NCAA Tournament. Winthrop took the bubble talk out of the equation with a 84-81 victory over VMI in the Big South Championship. The Eagles have seven players averaging six points a game or more, led by guard Michael Jenkins 15 PPG. Craig Bradshaw, a 6-10 senior, adds 13 PPG and gives them a big target in the post. Brey has seen Winthrop play a few times this year on television and will review tape of them first thing Monday morning to devise a game plan.
"From watching TV, Winthrop is this year's George Mason," Brey said. "It'll probably be the only 6-11 game where the six will be an underdog. They are a very good basketball team. They have good guards that can shoot it and have good size."
A win over the Eagles sets up a possible contest against third-seed Oregon in the second round on Sunday. The Ducks won the Pac-10 Tournament this weekend in impressive fashion, smoking USC in the title game. Wisconsin is the two-seed and would be the betting favorite for a Sweet 16 contest. At the top of the Midwest bracket is No. 1 overall seed Florida. The Gators are the defending champions and recently breezed through the SEC Tournament to win the title. Everyone will have their brackets filled out and there could be any number of possible scenarios that play out. Brey knows one thing is for sure with his Notre Dame team.
"We have access," a smiling Brey said in contrast to the past three seasons. "That's always good."