By Brad Thompson–
No. 7 Notre Dame had another impressive win on Monday, lambasting nineteenth-ranked Villanova 93-72 in South Bend. With a 24-5 record, this is the best Fighting Irish team in years. So how far can this team go in the tournament?
Notre Dame hasn’t received much recognition nationally, but they have been ranked in the top 10 the entire month of February. I hear a lot about how great the Big East is and how it might send 11 teams to the Big Dance, yet I rarely hear about the team with the second best conference record.
With that said, now is no time to worry or complain about the Irish not receiving enough attention, it is March after all. With a trip to Storrs to face No. 16 Connecticut as the only remaining game on Notre Dame’s regular season schedule, the Irish have a shot at the conference title if Pittsburgh falters in either of their remaining two games. Notre Dame beat the Panthers, 56-51 in Pittsburgh, in their only meeting this season.
Notre Dame may have opened some eyes Monday night, showcasing the potential this team has for a long tournament run. With such a strong showing in the best conference, the Irish are battle-tested enough to be a Final Four team and maybe even a title contender. The fluctuation atop the polls this season demonstrates the lack of a dominant team. This year the tournament madness should be tremendous, so how will Notre Dame perform?
Guard play is an important factor in the tournament, which is great news for the Irish. Ben Hansbrough is their best player and will have the ball in his hands down the stretch. Ball handling, turnovers, free throw shooting and the ability to create his own shot in crucial situations make Hansbrough invaluable in the tournament.
Notre Dame’s three-point shooting has been exceptional and never better than on Monday. They drained 20 of 32 triple attempts versus Villanova. The Irish lead the Big East in three-point field goal percentage at .391. They live and die by the three ball. In Notre Dame’s five losses, which they lost by an average of 16 points per contest, they only shot 26 percent (27-102) from behind the arc.
Their dependence on three-point shooting is definitely a concern, but at least they have more than one three-point assassin. If the entire team has a poor shooting night from downtown, which doesn’t happen often, they will be in trouble.
Their lack of depth is another potential weakness that could hamper their performance, but depth is overrated in the tournament. TV timeouts are much longer during the tournament, which only helps a team like Notre Dame. With the exception of getting into foul trouble, Notre Dame’s lack of depth shouldn’t be a factor.
Having five seniors in the starting lineup is certainly an anomaly in college hoops and should be an advantage for the Irish. While all this experience has benefited them in Big East play, they still lack tournament experience. Last season Old Dominion, an 11 seed, knocked Notre Dame out of the tournament in the first round. In 2009 Notre Dame didn’t make the tournament and in their two tournament games in 2008 no one on this year’s team played any significant minutes.
The player’s inexperience in the tournament coupled with Coach Mike Brey’s 5-8 tournament record could mean trouble. Brey’s squads have only made it past the first weekend once in his 11 seasons in South Bend, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in 2003.
This could be the year that Notre Dame plays into April. Their three-point shooting and solid guard play make them a Sweet Sixteen team. If the experience of this senior-laden squad shines through, they could go to the Final Four.
It is March though, so anything is possible.
Do you agree with Brad? Post your comments below.
Brad M. Thompson, a former college football player and coach, made his return to the Midwest in 2009 after fighting wildfires out West. He earned his master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and covers the Big Ten Conference and Chicago sports. Follow him on Twitter at @Brad_M_Thompson. Find more of Brad’s blogs here.