Tuesday night's 70-64 win over the University of Alabama at Birmingham provided the first step required towards that goal. Looking ahead to the rest of the NIT bracket, the opposition isn't going to be easier either.
Thursday, the Irish will face the New Mexico Lobos, who handled Nebraska in their NIT opener 83-71, Tuesday night as well. The Lobos finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Mountain West Conference with a record of 12-4, and 22-11 overall in their season. New Mexico boasts a potent offense that is picking up 73.7 points per contest thanks to its four-headed scoring threat of guards and forwards.
Picking up 15.2 points per game, the Lobos are led by senior shooting guard Tony Danridge. New Mexico's forward duo of Daniel Faris and Roman Martinez contribute just over 10 points and six rebounds per contest, respectively. Finally, rounding out the double-figure scorers for the Lobos is senior guard Chad Toppert with 10.7 points per contest.
Because of their offense, New Mexico was able to split their conference matchups against a pair of NCAA Tournament squads in BYU and Utah, taking both home contests in each respective series this past season.
Since the contest between the Lobos and Nebraska coincided with Notre Dame's own NIT opener, Brey was not able to watch the contest in its entirety. He was able, however, to catch the last couple of minutes.
"No, I'm going to try and catch maybe the last 15 minutes right now, I'm going to walk in there because it's on and certainly tonight and tomorrow morning we'll have a chance to digest them," he said. "But my other assistants have been watching each one of them and they can brief us tonight a little bit. But you know, at this point it's really about us."
Now that the Irish do know that they will face the Lobos, Brey is drawing back to his memories of Lobos head coach Steve Alford's tenure at Iowa to prepare his squad for Thursday.
"Yeah, I know him from his Iowa days, and all that," Brey said. "But I don't know their systems."
On the other side of Notre Dame's bracket looms the first-place shareholder of the Mountain Valley Conference, the Creighton Bluejays who finished with a 26-7 overall record and a mark of 14-4 in their league. If the Bluejays can take care of Bowling Green in their opening round match tonight, they will face SEC standout Kentucky, who beat UNLV 70-60 Tuesday. Creighton nets 73.6 points per game, but features a more balanced scoring attack, with only a pair of players scoring in double figures. The guard duo of senior Booker Woodfox and sophomore P'Allen Stinnett who pick up 15.9 and 12.3 points per game, respectively.
If the Irish can make a run and end up in the semifinals of the tournament, the Florida Gators and Penn State are the premier squads that Notre Dame could potentially face. In addition, Big East rivals Providence could potentially be one of the teams the Irish would face down the road. Rounding out the list of conference participants are the Georgetown Hoyas who are a six seed in their bracket and face Baylor today.
HILLESLAND BANGED UP: Senior forward Zach Hillesland came down awkward when he attempted a shot in the second half against UAB and received some medical attention. After leaving the contest for several minutes, he returned wearing a knee brace in limited action after the injury, which was declared a hyperextension.
"The running up and down felt okay; it was the jumping that kind of affected me," Hillesland said. "I'll take tomorrow off, see where I am Thursday, get me an injection and let it roll. On the takeoff, I hyperextended it, and that's why I threw up that goofy sky hook lob, that's why I shot that instead of trying to make a legitimate play," he joked. "It didn't feel right. I guess running feels okay, it's just not being explosive."
Although the forward had to sit on the bench for the remainder of the game, the Irish were covered, thanks to Nash's participation.
"He banged his knee, and he tried to go and he's really sore," Brey said. "And so Ty Nash did a great job, so he covered for us. I fully expect Hillesland to be ready to go on Thursday but this guy continues to give us a big lift with rebounding and stuff around the basket."
SPARSE CROWD, ENERGETIC ATMOSPHERE: Tuesday night at the Joyce Center, there was something evidently missing — about 10,000 people that is. The official attendance for the contest against UAB was 2,039, by far the lowest tally of the season. Partly due to St. Patrick's Day celebrations across South Bend, the low numbers did not affect Notre Dame. In fact, the players drew inspiration from the energy the few in attendance were able to produce.
"Our crowd really helped us tonight," Brey said. "That's a quick turnaround, it's a quick assignment, it's 9 o'clock on St. Patrick's Day, I understand that. Our crowd will be even fuller on Thursday, but our sixth man tonight, our students were great and the people that were there gave us energy. I thought it was good energy. We had a home court advantage, even through there wasn't 11,400 in there, that's all I was hoping for, so they were great."
Luke Harangody felt the same way and echoed his coach's statement.
"Yeah, definitely down the stretch, during different parts of the game, it got pretty loud in there," he said. "The people that were there made some noise. It was great. It was something unusual. We knew there wasn't going to be a big crowd out there tonight with the quick turnaround and it being St. Patrick's Day, so we were expecting that so as the game wore on and on, it felt more and more like a Big East game, and the crowd got louder, especially our sixth man."