The second-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish begin their NCAA Tournament Friday at 1:40 eastern when they take on 15th-seeded Akron in second round action in the Southwest Regional at the United Center in Chicago. The winner will then play the victor between seventh-seeded Texas A&M and 10th-seeded Florida State on Sunday. The Irish earned their highest seed in the NCAA Tournament since they were a two seed in 1981. That year they won their first game, but lost in the second. This year hopes to be a different story.
Notre Dame enters this year’s tournament coming off their best regular season since Digger Phelps roamed the sidelines. They finished 26-6 overall and 14-4 in the Big East just one game behind Pittsburgh for the regular season championship. The Irish advanced to the Big East semifinals with a win over Cincinnati before falling to Louisville in overtime. That loss most likely prevented ND from grabbing one of the four #1 seeds. Still, the 26 wins for the Irish are the most in the 11-year old Mike Brey era and the most overall wins since the 1973-74 season.
What the Irish do best this year is shoot the ball. They shot better than 50% from the field 12 times this year and scored over 90 points on six occasions. Overall, Notre Dame is shooting 46.6% from the field and hits nearly 40% of their threes. Heading up the charge is current Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough who leads the team in points (18.5), assists (4.3), three points percentage (44.1) and steals (41). He the key for the Irish this year and when he is on, Notre Dame is extremely tough to beat.
Besides Hansbrough, the other four Irish starters all can handle the ball and score. TIm Abromaitis and Carleton Scott each avearge double digits, 15.3 and 11.6 points respectively, while Scott Martin and Tyrone Nash each average just under 10 points a contest. If Notre Dame has any weaknesses it’s the fact that they can rely too much of Hansbrough to run the show. If he goes cold like he did in their Big East semifinal against Louisville, the Irish can struggle to score. The other weakness that can jump out is the lack of depth. ND will only go seven deep for the most part. If one or two of their guys get into foul trouble or get injured, the bench does not provide many answers.
This is the 31st appearance in the NCAA Tournament for Notre Dame and the seventh under Mike Brey. Brey stands at just 5-6 in the NCAA Tourney with the Irish and has only one Sweet 16 appearance in his previous six trips.
Akron comes into the tournament 23-12 overall and finished 9-7 in the Mid-American Conference. They earned their NCAA bid by winning the MAC Tournament with a 66-65 overtime win over Kent State. The Zips were very strong at home and on a neutral court this year going 14-2 at home and 5-1 at a neutral site. The 23 wins gave Akron their sixth straight 20-win season, one of just 20 schools to acheive that feat.
Akron is led by a trio of players who score in double figures. Leading the way is Nikola Cvetinovic who averages 11.9 points a game. Brett McKnight and Brett McClanahan follow scoring 10.3 and 10.1 points respectively. Five players actually shoot better than 37% from three point range making them a very good shooting team from the outside.
The problems with the Zips lie in the rebounding and turnovers. Akron was outrebounded by their opponents by 98 total rebounds and nearly three rebounds a game. They also average over 12 turnovers a contest, although they forced their opponents to commit an average of 14.3 turnovers a game. The Irish do not turn the ball over too much averaging two fewer turnovers a game than Akron. It could come down to who takes care of the ball the best.
The automatic bid gave Akron their third NCAA Tournament bid of all-time and their second in the past three seasons. The Zips have never won an NCAA Tournament game before losing to second-seeded Michigan in 1986 and fourth-seeded Gonzaga in 2009. They have also never beaten the Irish falling in both previous matchups in 1983 and 1995.
A 15-seed has only beaten a two-seed four times since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 and while it’s not impossible, I don’t expect it happen for the fifth time in this game. The Irish are just too talented and too solid of a basketball team to let that happen. Plus, Notre Dame will be playing with a chip on their shoulder after their one-and-done upset loss to Old Dominion last year. This is a senior-led Irish squad and one that will not be nervous on the big stage. I expect Akron to come out strong, but eventually succumb to the Fighting Irish.
Notre Dame – 85
Akron – 64