I'll be very upfront; I do not expect the Irish to make it to the Final Four. Only one team has ever made it to the Final Four as a 7 seed. Notre Dame has also struggled in recent NCAA tournaments, with just two wins in the last five appearances. But we can dream, can't we? Let's do what Mike Brey refuses to do and look ahead at who stands in the way on the Irish's path to the Final Four.
First up (Friday, 9:45 ET, CBS) is Iowa State, coached by alumnus Fred Hoiberg. He quickly turned around the Cyclone program and has them in back-to-back tournaments for the first time in over a decade. They love to run it up the floor and chuck it, presenting a much different pace than Notre Dame is used to. Still, they are not terribly efficient shooters and appear to turn it over quite a bit against slower paced teams (e.g.: Cincinnati, Kansas State, West Virginia, TCU). Iowa State and Notre Dame really are dissimilar teams, and the one that makes the game fit their style better (especially if the Cyclones shoot a little better than their average) likely has an upper hand.
If the Irish get past Iowa State, the next game would likely feature the toughest opponent in the bracket in their own backyard, Ohio State. The Buckeyes are an extremely popular Final Four pick, particularly coming off their B1G Tournament championship. They are highly-rated on both offense and defense but, like Notre Dame, like to slow it down and slug it out. They are battle-tested and red-hot, winning their last 8 entering tournament play, and are one of the best interior defenses in the country. Nothing jumps off the page statistically about them, but they play tough and are on a roll.
If the Irish pull off the major upset of the Buckeyes, they will face one of four teams in their Sweet Sixteen match up. Harvard is unlikely to be the opponent, but Steve Alford's New Mexico Lobos are very likely. They won the five-bid Mountain West Conference and beat the likes of Davidson, UConn, and Cincinnati in their non-conference schedule. The Lobos are far from great offensively and have struggled in some games against excellent defensive teams like St. Louis, UNLV, and San Diego State. Non-BCS conference teams have traditionally underperformed in the tourney when highly-seeded as well.
Additional possibilities at this stage are Arizona and Belmont. Belmont, much like Iowa State, shoots a lot of threes but is much more efficient from the floor, albeit against lesser competition. They are very much an unknown and, despite success in getting to the tournament in recent years, have never won a game.
Arizona has some impressive non-conference wins (Florida, Miami, San Diego State) but struggled against the other Pac 12 tournament teams (their only 2 wins were against Colorado).
If Notre Dame makes it to the Elite Eight, the most likely opponent standing between them and the Final Four would be one-seeded Gonzaga, led by Kelly Olynyk. They have been dominant all year, losing only two games to Butler and Illinois. For some reason, they played 4 Big XII opponents (OU, OSU, Baylor, KSU) and won each time. However, outside of St. Mary's, they haven't been tested for few months, as you'd have to go all the way to 71st in KenPom's rankings to get to the next WCC team.
Other possibilities include Pittsburgh, Wisconsin, and Kansas State. Wisconsin is a chic pick, but so is everyone in the B1G. They did look impressive in wins over Michigan and Indiana in the B1G tournament and really force opponents to slow things down.
Kansas State is no one's pick to do anything, and I am not really sure why. They are pretty good offensively and crash the boards hard. They also have a potential breakout star in Rodney McGruder, who can really score.
The advanced metrics love Pittsburgh, but the eye test certainly does not. The Irish embarrassed the Panthers on their home court with a major comeback, and Pittsburgh was one-and-done in the Big East tournament, which is never a good sign.
So there you have it. Notre Dame's path to the Final Four, filled with a mix of mid-majors and traditional powers and plenty of varying styles along the way. It's a tall order for a mid-seeded team with limited tournament success, but there's no reason we can't play the "what if" game four days prior to reality setting in.
What do you think? How far can the Irish take this thing? Still jaded from tournaments past? What will be the keys to advance?
We'll be back more this week with a more in-depth preview of Iowa State, hopefully a Q&A with their Wide Right, Natty Lite blog and some predictions from the staff.