When looking at the first round of the NCAA tournament (I refuse to acknowledge those Tuesday and Wednesday night abominations as the first round), I think it is almost more important to look at where Notre Dame is as a team versus who they are playing. The team looks drained, the magic of the nine-game winning streak gone, replaced with a couple of blowout losses and a scrappy, "Who can throw this rock harder?" win against South Florida. I'm not sure if it's physical fatigue, as they had nearly a week off between the Friars and Bulls and still managed to fall behind double-digits early. I think this team might just be mentally spent, especially when you consider the cavalcade of dumb turnovers against Louisville. Granted, the Cardinals made a lot of good teams look bad in the Garden, but the Irish did themselves no favors.
The Irish drew the Xavier Musketeers for the NCAA tournament, a program that reached the Sweet Sixteen for three straight years before being knocked off in their first game against Marquette last year. Their leader is guard Tu Holloway, Atlantic 10 Player of the Year in '10-'11, and wingman for Jordan Crawford in 2010's ridiculous double overtime game against Kansas State for the right to go to the Elite Eight. I'm not sure if you remember that game, but it was basically the Wildcats taking a lead, then Crawford and Holloway hitting ridiculous shots to keep the game going. Last year, the Golden Eagles focused on taking Holloway out of the game, holding him to 1-of-8 shooting on their way to the second round. If Notre Dame wants to win, they cannot let Holloway or his capable backcourt mate Mark Lyons go off.
Inside, the Musketeers have veteran seven-footer Kenny Frease, who should provide Jack Cooley with quite the challenge at both ends of the floor. Mack's squad has good size overall, rounding out their rotation with four players between 6'4" and 6'9". Despite this quality height, Xavier is not a dominating rebounding team, so there may be some chances for Cooley to get some second-chance points in the paint.
Nothing about the Muskeeter's KenPom profile really jumps out as a red flag. They are top 70 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, slightly behind the Irish in both but not enough that the random variables in a basketball game wouldn't cancel it out. They have some capable three-point shooters, but they don't take many. They don't force a lot of turnover and they have a lot of success getting to the foul line. That last note might prove helpful to an Irish team that does not send people to the line, perhaps denying Xavier a key tenet of their offense.
As much as a cop out as this may be, this game is going to come down to who can make shots. If Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant play like they did for stretches this season, finding each other, their teammates and the bottom of the net with aplomb, then the Irish can win this game. If they're turning the ball over while Tu Holloway decides he doesn't want his senior season to end just yet, I could see a tournament-seasoned Xavier squad taking this by double digits. The Musketeers haven't played since their brawl with Cincinnati, but they did get it together to make the A-10 finals, beating a very good Saint Louis team on the way.
Make shots, get a chance to make some memories against Duke. Watch Xavier make shots and find yourself home in time for St. Patrick's Day.