"We're honored to earn a five seed," Brey said. "We're excited. We understand that there are a lot of people that don't get to play in these 64 teams … But we're honored and thrilled to be playing in this thing. You count your blessings because basketball is a fragile thing, and to be back in it as a five seed, we feel good about it, and I told those guys today I thought it's the best résumé any of my teams have obviously put together going into this thing as far as their regular season body of work."
However, making a run in the tournament won't come easy for Notre Dame, as it was placed in arguably one of the more difficult regions of the bracket. Besides their first-round foes, Colonial Athletic Conference champions George Mason, the region boasts other teams such as the consensus No. 1 team in the nation, North Carolina. In addition, No. 4/4 Tennessee earned the two seed, as Big East rivals No. 13/13 Louisville were tabbed as the three seed. A pair of in-state squads also made their way into the region, as No. 12/10 Butler and No. 22/20 Indiana were placed in the East portion of the bracket as well.
The Patriots (23-10, 12-6) are a very talented group of players led by their two seniors who have Final Four experience from two years ago. Both Folarin Campbell and Will Thomas have the memories of their Cinderella season fresh in their minds and would like to start a run much like the one they made in 2006. The senior duo has established themselves as the primary offensive options for George Mason, both chipping in a little below 16 points per game. Thomas is also a menace on the boards, averaging 10.5 rebounds per contest. Third option, John Vaughn should not be overlooked, as his 12.6 scoring average could provide the Patriots with some depth if both seniors start out cold.
Brey is well aware of the physical and mature nature of this George Mason team, specifically Campbell's presence. "Well, I know him," Brey said. "You know him, you know Campbell, those guys. I mean, they've won together for a long time. They're really, really good players. You know, he's a heck of a basketball player. He basically took on Connecticut's front line and everybody else's front line for the month of March and did a pretty good job with it. Now, he had some other help, too. That's what I mean about the physicality and the maturity of a number of guys on their team, him being the most."
George Mason also has a very dangerous outside-shooting threat in Dre Smith, who puts up an impressive 38-percent stroke from three-point range. In a 96-75 win at James Madison, Smith set an NCAA record, shooting 10-of-10 from beyond the arc. Much like Marquette's Maurice Aker came off the bench to produce valuable points in the Golden Eagle win, Smith could have a similar impact if the Irish fail to account for him.
If Notre Dame can get past the Patriots, they will play the winner of the match up between Washington State and Winthrop, who upset the Irish in the first round of the tournament last year. After the loss, Brey believes his team is using the early defeat as a motivating factor. "I think it's probably a great motivating force for this group," Brey said. "As well as they did last year, they felt they left some unfinished business on the table in Spokane. Having said that, we know we lost to a very veteran team that had been to the tournament and tasted it a couple more times than us. But I think after the regular season we've had and then most — this whole nucleus played in the NCAA Tournament last year and went through the practices and went through this week, I just think you're more prepared now to be successful and maybe not wide eyed a little bit."
Notre Dame doesn't want to take any chances and overlook the Patriots, and Brey is letting his squad know where there priorities should be. There's been a solid amount of hype around the possibility of playing the Tar Heels, but Brey quickly dismissed the talk of facing the top-ranked team. "Well, it would be in Charlotte," he said "But you know what, probably so, but I'm sure in their minds that's the farthest thing from our minds. We talked about it. You look at it like we're playing the Denver Open. There's four teams in the NCAA Tournament as far as my guys are concerned, and I'll put that bracket up on the board tomorrow. We're in the Denver Open, four teams playing there in the Pepsi Center, and if you can win the Denver Open then we can talk about the Charlotte Open."
After last year, one thing that has been clear is the intensity in the eyes of the team and their determination to fight. "We talk about it a lot," Tory Jackson said. "I know me and Kyle [McAlarney], we talk about it a lot, going in with a different mindset, being hungry and being one of the best back courts in the country. And talking to the other players, I think just hearing how everybody — everybody is anxious to get out there and play. Everybody is ready to go out there. Last year we left a lot out there, and it was a good game. We came back, but it was just one of those days where we didn't bring our all. I feel like we're not going to give no excuses this year, and everybody is going to go in and they're going to play tough and fight until the end."
It seems as though the Irish are trying to put the first round Big East loss behind them, as they gear up for what could potentially be a far more memorable run "Yeah, it was disappointing for us to lose in our first game there in New York," Luke Harangody said. "But I think as we talked about with Coach, it would be better to make a run in this tournament than the Big East tournament."
If you want to figure out the Irish mindset heading into their first round match up, its all quite simple, according to Brey. "Let it rip," he said. "We're going to go to Denver to let it rip in the Rocky Mountains, have fun playing and going for it. We're not holding back. I think that's how this group has played most of the year, attacking and going for it, not playing safe, and certainly that's how I want us to get out of the gate on Thursday."