Next Up: Winthrop

At Media Day before the season, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said he wanted his team to dream big and set a goal to make the NCAA Tournament. After losing last year's MVP in Chris Quinn, this was thought to be an uphill climb. But a fast start to the season, combined with a perfect home record, have the Irish staring at their first tournament contest since 2003.

Notre Dame, a sixth seed in the Midwest bracket, will face No. 11 Winthrop on Friday afternoon in Spokane, Washington. Tip-off is scheduled for 2:35 PM and CBS will have the television coverage. The Irish were 24-7 on the year and finished fourth in the Big East Conference. Notre Dame lost a thrilling contest to Georgetown 84-82 in the conference tournament semifinals in New York City but proved they could go toe-to-toe with the big boys. The Hoyas are a No. 2 seed in the East bracket and one of the favorites to cut down the nets at the Final Four. If the Irish can duplicate this high-level performance, Winthrop will have a tough time pulling the upset.

The Eagles have been the bigger story this week. In everyone's search to find the this season's George Mason, Winthrop is one of those teams pegged with the label. It shows their capable of pulling off a deep run in the tournament. The Eagles went 28-4 and their four losses were to North Carolina, Maryland, Texas A&M and Wisconsin. They've won 18 in a row since losing on January 2nd to the Aggies and didn‘t lose a single conference game. With the acclaim comes the bullseye on the chest. Notre Dame has heard for five days now that Winthrop is the popular pick among the mid-majors to cause some havoc in the Big Dance. The Irish, winners of six of their last seven, could use the talk as extra motivation, as if being in the NCAA Tournament wasn't enough.

Michael Jenkins leads the team in scoring. The junior guard averages 15 PPG and is shooting 47 percent from the field. Even better, Jenkins nails 42 percent of his shots from behind the arc. His high this season was 40 points. In the four losses, all to NCAA Tournament teams, Jenkins averaged 11 PPG, four below his season total. Down low, Craig Bradshaw patrols the paint area for Winthrop. The 6-10 center averages 13 PPG and pulls down six rebounds a contest. The New Zealand native has scored in double figures 12 of the past 13 games and has totaled three double-doubles on the year. 6-5 guard Torrell Martin adds a second-best 14 PPG and is shooting 39 percent from three-point range. As a team, Winthrop makes eight three-pointers a contest. Notre Dame hits nine shots from behind the arc a game. Another important point is that the top seven players, minutes-wise, on the Eagles roster are either juniors or seniors.

Notre Dame's biggest key might be the play of Tory Jackson. The freshman point guard is leading the Irish into the NCAA Tournament for the first time. But if his play down the stretch is any hint of what to expect in the Big Dance, Notre Dame fans will have smiles on their faces come Friday afternoon. Jackson was brilliant late in the season. He led the Big East in conference games in assists. His 21-point, seven-rebound and seven assist performance against Marquette was a major reason for the victory. Jackson saved his best for last. With the Irish down 76-69 to Georgetown in the league tournament, he went on his own 7-0 to tie the contest up. Jackson's acrobatic lay-up with less than a minute to play tied the game up at 82-all before the Hoyas' Jeff Green won it with a bucket with 13 seconds remaining. Jackson has demonstrated a cool demeanor the past month and more of the same against Winthrop will be a boon for Notre Dame's first-round chances. Top Stories