Five brief thoughts after No. 8 Notre Dame’s clutch 77-73 victory over No. 4 Duke on Wednesday night in South Bend:
1. The Irish (20-2) have a real shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Their low RPI ranking aside — it’ll be somewhere in the 20s on Thursday — they’re in the hunt for a top seed because the ACC is, by far, the league with the best shot to land two of them. And just look at the standings now: At 8-1, Notre Dame is a full three games up on Duke (4-3) and chasing only Virginia (7-0). North Carolina is 7-1, but that loss came in Chapel Hill against the Irish.
2. Move over, Okafor and Kaminsky. All season long, Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky have been hailed as the leading contenders for national player of the year honors. The way it has come across, really, is that Whitney Young’s Okafor and Benet Academy’s Frank the Tank are the only contenders. That simply shouldn’t be the case, because Irish senior guard Jerian Grant belongs in the conversation as surely as Okafor and Kaminsky do. That was true before the Duke game, but holy smokes — he had 23 points, 12 assists and six rebounds against the Blue Devils. A gigantic performance.
3. Real-deal Jahlil. Okafor, meanwhile, went off with 22 points and 17 boards. He’s the best true center in college basketball. How long before he’s the best true center in the NBA? Three years? Two? One? He’ll be the No. 1 pick in 2015 and obviously should be.
4. Connaughton can do. I want ol’ Patty C. on my team every day of the week and twice on Sundays, OK? What a player. You get your 6-5 body in the air and pull down 12 rebounds in a game this big, you’re a hero. Or darned close, anyway.
5. Duke still has a better chance than Notre Dame to beat Kentucky. Sorry, Irish fans, but it’s true. Kentucky’s front line is so enormous and deep, Okafor might be the only big in the country who can handle his business against the Wildcats. And Duke has great three-point shooting. Notre Dame has shooters and passes the ball beautifully — truly, beautifully — but the Okafor card remains the one that no other potential opponent of Kentucky can play. I’m not saying the Irish can’t beat UK. It’s conceivable, as it would be for Virginia, Wisconsin, Arizona and perhaps a handful of others. Pretty sweet for Notre Dame fans to be able to say their team is in such an esteemed group.