Doubt them. Really, go ahead. Question their toughness. Perpetuate the #narrative that they can't defend. Under-seed the ACC champions. Make them underdogs to the 7 seed from the MVC. Switch your pick on ESPN like Seth Greenberg. Doubt Mike Brey and his two senior leaders. Go ahead, because once you do, they've got you right where they want you.
Talking and typing heads all around the basketball world pegged the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as the underdog in their Sweet Sixteen match-up versus the Wichita State Shockers. Despite ND carrying in a 3 seed to WSU's 7, conventional wisdom had this as a grinding NCAA Tournament game, likely played in the low 60's, where WSU's tournament-tested-toughness (TM) would wear down an Irish squad that can't be trusted in March. Mmmm... the tasty #narrative.
Mike Brey played it to perfection. In his pre-game comments to the media, he noted all the talk was about the WSU rematch with Kentucky in the Elite Eight. His "forgotten" squad came out ready to play Thursday night and used a ruthlessly efficient second half to exert their will over Gregg Marshall's team. In Brian Hamilton's excellent SI profile of Irish senior Pat Connaughton, Pat's dad Len passed along this lesson:
In everything in life, Len told Pat, whether it's a business negotiation or tests at school or a baseball or basketball game, someone always quits. That's how it works. Someone always does it a little better, someone always has a little more determination. And someone always gives in.
In Cleveland, Thursday night, Pat and his teammates did it a little better and had a little more determination than their opponents. As an Irish fan, you knew it was going to be a slug-fest, you knew there would be runs, and you're starting to have faith that this Notre Dame team can take a punch, keep swinging, and come out on top.
Notre Dame is going to the Elite Eight. Notre Dame will play its seventh post-season game on Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four. Notre Dame beat Wichita State 81-70 Thursday night in Cleveland. To be clear, that phrasing is entirely intentional. There will be no talk of WSU not showing up, the Shockers being off, or ND getting lucky. Notre Dame beat Wichita State with solid defense coupled with gorgeous, balanced and efficient offense that broke the Shockers spirit.
The Irish opened the night with an ideal four minute burst. By the first media timeout, ND was up ten. Demetrius Jackson had poured in two assisted 3's while Pat Connaughton and Zach Auguste converted at the rim off of Jerian Grant assists. Notre Dame's offensive attack was firing on all cylinders, and they built their lead to 13 as Brey went to his bench for his usual platoon of V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson. Beachem struggled with a few misses and a bad turnover, and quickly the Shockers began to slice in to ND's lead. A couple more turnovers and some cold shooting let WSU back in the game. With momentum on their side, Gregg Marshall took his team to the locker room down only 3.
As the second half began, Fred Van Vleet began to heat up and got a quick bucket, a steal, and then knocked down free throws to cut the Irish lead to one. Then Darius Carter scored on a midrange shot at 16:41 to put Wichita State up one at 38-37. Mike Brey called a quick timeout to gather his team. Much like the Irish explosion vs. UNC in Greensboro, the Irish came out of that timeout like a house on fire. Demetrius Jackson decided it was time to assert his will on this game. After all the talk of Van Vleet being the superior guard, DJ went alpha-dog. First, Jerian got him a great look at a corner 3. Nothing but net. After a Baker miss on the other end, DJ pulls up for a heat-check three off the dribble - splash. Next trip, DJ penetrates and gets Bonzie Colson a nice lay-up. Once Steve Vasturia knocked in his first three of the game, the Irish had turned a one point deficit into a six point lead. In just under 2 minutes of game time, Notre Dame a seven point swing and a lead they wouldn't give up.
From that point on, Notre Dame showed the clinical offensive precision that makes them a threat to run off with this whole thing. The Irish sliced apart the Shocker defense with crisp passing, textbook spacing, and fantastic shooting. The result was 1.37 points per possession in the second half for 48 total points. The Irish made 18 of 24 of their second half shots, including 6 of 8 from the 3 point line. That's 88% eFG for those scoring at home.
This was yet another balanced attack from the Irish. They had six very productive contributors on the night. Both Grant and Connaughton went the full 40, DJ played 39, and Vasturia 37. Bonzie Colson bounced back for a solid night with six points two boards and a block in 14 minutes. As balanced as it all was, the stage belonged mostly to two men: Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant. As noted, DJ once again went in to alpha mode during the run that got ND back on top, but even that was started by a tremendous probing drive by Grant that opened the corner 3 for DJ. It was an entirely Harden-esque assist. Some will look at only the stat line and see that Jerian was 3-8 for only 9 points on the night and assume he played poorly. Keep reading down the line until you get to his tournament-leading 11 assists on the night. Amazingly, those 11 assists led to 27 Irish points. Jerian was responsible for 36 of ND's 81 total points. That also means that Jerian was the man getting clean looks for the tremendous 3 point shooting. Five of those 11 assists led to five of ND's nine made threes. Jerian picked the vaunted Shocker defense apart.
On the other end, it was a team defensive effort. The Irish could do little to slow Fred Van Vleet, who lead WSU with 25. VanVleet did his damage off the bounce. Darius Carter, who made 9-15 shots to finish with 22 for the Shockers, hurt the Irish in the paint. Beyond that, WSU didn't have another man in double figures. The shooting that propelled WSU past the Big12 champions wasn't there vs. the ACC champs. WSU was harassed and contested the entire night. They struggled to generate clean looks and managed only 3-18 from behind the arc. Of course, that included some forced attempts late, but ND did a spectacular job getting to shooters and tagging them up to prevent open 3's. The Shockers didn't get many clean looks.
Let's make sure we save a paragraph at the end to sing the praises of Mike Brey. How many times did he have to hear about Marshall out-coaching him while Marshall was at Winthrop? Brey had to put up with pundits predicting the Shockers would be the better prepared and better coached team on Thursday. Coach Brey, just flippin' point to the scoreboard. Let that ruthless competitor in you bask in the glow of having the more prepared, more motivated, and winning team Thursday night. Whatever he said in that Greensboro timeout worked again in Cleveland because as they walked out of that timeout down one, Notre Dame found another gear to bury another team that no one thought they'd beat to accomplish something no one dreamed they could. Good on you Mike.
This was a night of beautiful, balanced basketball. Four players in double figures (and Grant with 9). The passing was incredibly sharp, producing 18 assists on the 30 made FG's. Of course, you know the story though: ND is soft, slow, jump-shooters, right?
Those of us who follow Notre Dame hope a night like this could finally turn the narrative. We hope someone like Titus might be right:
Welcome to the Notre Dame bandwagon, America. We've been expecting you. Feel free to make yourself at home.— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) March 27, 2015
Perhaps this team will be dismissed and discounted again. In fact, given their next opponent, I can guarantee it. Go ahead, doubt them again.