March 11, 2012
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey likes the loose approach. That's how he prefers to coach and it's also the way he wants - and expects - his team to play Friday when it opens NCAA tournament play against Xavier.
"I think it's kind of ingrained in then. We've got nothing to lose," Brey said Sunday when the Irish were given a No. 7 seed in the South Regional.
The Irish (22-11) put together a nine-game winning streak and went a surprising 13-5 in the BIG EAST this season despite losing star Tim Abromaitis to a knee injury after he played just two games. Notre Dame lost in the conference tournament semifinals to Louisville and will be searching for the same rhythm it had during its impressive winning streak that turned around the season.
"I think we need to watch some film of how we played in that stretch in February to be a reminder of the attack frame of mind we were in," Brey said.
Xavier (21-12) got an at-large bid on Sunday after losing in the Atlantic 10 tournament final to St. Bonaventure.
Brey said he told his team that Friday's game in Greensboro, N.C., would be just like a road game in the BIG EAST because that's how good the Musketeers are with guards like Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons.
And Notre Dame did well on the road this season, winning games at Louisville, Seton Hall, Connecticut and West Virginia.
They dropped their final two road games at St. John's and Georgetown, won their season finale at home against Providence before beating the University of South Florida in their BIG EAST opener and then being beaten by eventual champion Louisville in the semis.
"I just want us to play better than we played Friday," Brey said, adding that the Irish have been good about not looking to the past and rebounding from losses.
"We've played well away from our building. I told them if we are going to win a first-round game Friday it will be like winning at Louisville, winning at West Virginia, winning at Connecticut. ... That kind of grind."
It is Notre Dame's eighth trip to the NCAA tourney under Brey. In his first season of 2000-01, the Irish made the tournament and their first opponent was Xavier with the Irish winning 83-71.
Xavier has been a constant in the NCAA tournament and will be making its seventh straight trip.
"We're very aware of the team we're playing," Notre Dame forward Scott Martin said. "We know how well they've played in the tournament and their history."
Notre Dame's success during its winning streak came with tough defense, the quickness of guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, steady shooting from the 3-point line and the rugged play of 6-9 Jack Cooley in the middle.
The shooting was way off in the 64-50 loss to Louisville at Madison Square Garden. Notre Dame made just 2 for 17 (12 percent) from 3-point range and 36 percent overall.
Once they got on a roll the Irish exuded the confidence that a team needs in postseason play. Now they need to recapture it.
"We're going to have to shoot it better. When we were on that run in February, we shot it pretty well," Brey said.
Martin played for an Irish team that went 27-7 a year ago and got a second seed but was beaten in its second game by Florida State in Chicago.
"There is more pressure for sure, a lot more going on, more distractions around the whole week," Martin said of the NCAAs. "I think last year we got a little tight and conservative. ... I think the big thing for us is to play loose and play like we did in that stretch when we played well."
Notre Dame hasn't been to the round of 16 since 2003, and it will be very difficult ending that streak.
If they should get by the Musketeers, a potential matchup with Duke awaits. Brey was an assistant with the Blue Devils for eight years from 1987-1995 but for sure isn't looking ahead.
"We're not good enough to be thinking about a second-round game and Duke and my connection there," Brey said.