We can all agree that Notre Dame isn’t quite the team it was one year ago. No Jerian Grant, no Pat Connaughton, no gaudy 30-plus-win record. Yada, yada, yada.
The Irish — set to meet Wisconsin on Friday in an East Regional Sweet 16 game in Philadelphia — have been hearing for months now that they’re pretty good, but they’re not as talented or as deep as they were. They’re pretty dangerous, but not like that 2015 Elite Eight team, which had a legit shot at a national title.
Why should these guys waste even one second caring about any of that?
They most certainly don’t. The sixth-seeded Irish (23-11) are awash in the bliss of the young — not fretting about what they aren’t, but dreaming about what they can become.
“We feel like we can win any game,” said junior forward V.J. Beachem, who averaged 16.5 points in victories over Michigan and Stephen F. Austin.
Another victory would mean a milestone for Notre Dame. It would be the first time in school history that the basketball program delivered six NCAA Tournament wins over a two-year span. That’s the stuff of superheavyweights Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas.
And, come to think of it, of Wisconsin.
The Badgers (22-12) reached the national semis in 2014 and the title game in 2015. Against the Irish, they’ll seek their 12th tourney win in three years. Like Notre Dame, they’re back in business this March with a squad of which far less was expected by the public.
That’s what makes this matchup such a fun one, isn’t it? It’s no wonder oddsmakers have it as a virtual dead heat.
Both teams are riding high after hitting thrilling late-game shots in the Round of 32. Seventh-seeded Wisconsin’s Bronson Koenig beat the buzzer with a corner three to upset Xavier. Irish freshman Rex Pflueger tipped in a shot with less than two seconds to go to suck the air out of Stephen F. Austin’s balloon. It was Pflueger’s only field goal in his last four games.
Whatever it takes, you know?
“This group has really had an interesting vibe about them,” coach Mike Brey said. “There’s some real mental toughness with them that we’ve benefited from.”
The truth is, Brey wasn’t sure what he’d get from this team. He did fret about losing Grant and Connaughton. He did wonder if Demetrius Jackson, Zach Auguste and Steve Vasturia would fill the leadership void while finding another level to ascend to as players.
“They’ve exceeded my expectations,” Brey said. “That’s why we’re still playing.”
It certainly could come to an end on Friday. Or the Irish might deliver Brey to his first Final Four since 1994, when he was an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski at Duke.
Either way, it has been a heck of a two-year run.
And now, let’s have a look at each of the Sweet 16 matchups:
SOUTH: NO. 2 VILLANOVA VS. NO. 3 MIAMI
The facts: Thursday, 6:10 p.m., Ch. 2; KFC Yum! Center, Louisville.
The question: What wins out, the Wildcats’ high-executing style or the Hurricanes’ athleticism? It isn’t very big “or” considering these teams are quite similar. Both defend well and have strong three-point shooters. Ryan Arcidiacono vs. Angel Rodriguez will be a fierce battle of point guards. I like Miami’s guy, Rodriguez, better.
The pick: Miami.
SOUTH: NO. 1 KANSAS VS. NO. 5 MARYLAND
The facts: Thursday, 8:40 p.m., Ch. 2; Louisville.
The question: Can the Terrapins do something really crazy like make a few three-point shots? They survived Hawaii in the Round of 32 despite going a mind-numbing 1-for-18 from deep. Star guard Melo Trimble has made two of his last 17 attempts. If the Terps knock down some jump shots, they can beat KU, which is playing merely the best ball in the country.
The pick: Kansas.
WEST: NO. 2 OKLAHOMA VS. NO. 3 TEXAS A&M
The facts: Thursday, 6:37 p.m., TBS; Honda Center, Anaheim, Calif.
The question: Is Buddy Ball too much for an Aggies team without a go-to guy? Buddy Hield displayed (yet again) down the stretch against VCU that he was born to hit the big shot. The Aggies defend well on the perimeter, though, and are far more physical than the Sooners. The closing minutes will be intense.
The pick: Oklahoma.
WEST: NO. 1 OREGON VS. NO. 4 DUKE
The facts: Thursday, 8:55 p.m., TBS; Anaheim.
The question: Is Dana Altman vs. Mike Krzyzewski a coaching mismatch? Coach K has a 12-0 edge over Altman in Final Four appearances, if that means anything. He was won big in March with old teams and young teams. But this is — undoubtedly — the best group Altman has had in his fine career. Dillon Brooks, Elgin Cook and the Ducks are dying to win this one.
The pick: Oregon.
MIDWEST: NO. 1 VIRGINIA VS. NO. 4 IOWA STATE
The facts: Friday, 6:10 p.m., Ch. 2; United Center.
The question: Can the Cyclones dig even deeper? The talent is plentiful in Fred Hoiberg’s old program; forward Georges Niang and point guard Monte Morris will be the two most skilled players on the floor. But is there any doubt about how hard Virginia plays? Heck no. ISU often has failed to approach the Wahoos’ level of want-to.
The pick: Virginia.
MIDWEST: NO. 10 SYRACUSE VS. NO. 11 GONZAGA
The facts: Friday, 8:40 p.m., Ch. 2; United Center.
The question: Can the Zags bust Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense? Kyle Wiltjer is a special shooter, but the Zags’ best player — by a large margin — is big man Domantas Sabonis, son of longtime NBA center Arvydas. The Orange will collapse on Young Saba and try to make shooters other than Wiltjer beat them.
The pick: Syracuse.
EAST: NO. 6 NOTRE DAME VS. NO. 7 WISCONSIN
The facts: Friday, 6:27 p.m., TBS; Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia.
The question: Has anyone seen Nigel Hayes’ shot? Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste will be busy tangling with Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ inside. For the rest of the Irish, the big, strong, skilled Hayes will be — or should be — a matchup nightmare. Yet Hayes is in a rather unbelievable offensive slump, having hit only seven of his last 42 field-goal attempts, including all 17 of his tries from beyond the arc.
The pick: Notre Dame.
EAST: NORTH CAROLINA VS. NO. 5 INDIANA
The facts: Friday, 8:57 p.m., TBS; Philadelphia.
The question: Are the Tar Heels too diverse offensively for the Hoosiers? Indiana’s Round of 32 victory over Kentucky was hugely impressive, but let’s face it — UK’s offense was Tyler Ulis, Jamal Murray and pray for rain. UNC has big-time guys in seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and sophomore Justin Jackson, and they’re not alone.
The pick: North Carolina.
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