DAYTON, Ohio — Other than those key-lime-crashes-into-neon-green uniforms Notre Dame trashed for the NCAA tournament, there was one other thing that made the Fighting Irish the talk of college basketball for a few days this season.
On Feb. 9, they defeated Louisville in an epic, five-overtime thriller, a game with more plot twists than any Hollywood “B” movie.
To some Notre Dame fans, it was the only game.
“It’s the game of the year,” said coach Mike Brey, adding wherever he goes in South Bend fans bring it up. “That’s all they know we played. They don’t know how many games we’ve lost since then, thank God. They don’t remember the two thumpings Louisville gave us. They remember that one.”
The seventh-seeded Irish (25-9) are hoping to make more memories Friday when they play 10th-seeded Iowa State (22-11) in the first round of the West Regional. Brey has Notre Dame in the tournament for the fourth straight year, and he’s trusting his team can make a deeper run this March after being bounced in its opener last March by Xavier.
Brey knows his way around the brackets better than most coaches. One of Mike Krzyzewski’s assistants at Duke, he was a member of six Final Four teams and two national champions. On Friday, Brey will be participating in his 53rd NCAA tournament game, a staggering number.
There’s nothing that can replace tournament experience, and Brey is counting on his players, especially junior starting guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, to be more prepared to handle the big stage this time around.
“They played older than they were (last year) to get us the bid,” he said. “And then in the postseason I thought they played their age a little bit, especially in the Xavier game. Experience helps in everything in college basketball in that you’ve been part of the tournament once.
“It can be a great advantage.”
After their wild 104-101 win over the Cardinals, the Irish went 4-3 to close the regular season and beat Rutgers and Marquette in the Big East tournament before losing to Louisville in the semifinals. Although they didn’t make the final, senior forward Jack Cooley felt he and his teammates were finding their groove.
“We really started to get into a flow of players really knowing their position and their roles on the team and how to play in order for us to win,” said Cooley, who averages 13.1 points and 10.3 rebounds. “Right now, we’re clicking very, very well and we’re playing our best basketball.”
The well-balanced Cyclones, who have six players averaging at least 9.3 points, also feel good about their run-up to the NCAAs.
The nation’s leader in 3-pointers, Iowa State relies on its outside attack, which is not that surprising given that the Cyclones are coached by Fred Hoiberg, who starred at the school and had his number 32 retired in Ames.
Hoiberg gives his players the green light to launch whenever they’re so inclined. Iowa State makes 9.8 3-pointers per game, and the Cyclones have dropped 325 shots from behind the arc this season.
“At any position, any time of the game, all five guys have the ability to shoot the three,” said senior point guard Korie Lucious, a transfer from Michigan State. “Coach gives us all confidence. We all have confidence in each other to shoot the three. That’s what we like to do.”
Hoiberg doesn’t hide from the fact that the Cyclones prefer to live dangerously from the outside.
“We have five guys out there that can either make a play or make a shot,” he said. “It makes it difficult on the defense, just with the randomness that we have on the offensive end and the freedom that our guys play with. It’s a luxury.”
The Cyclones scored 89 and 96 points against Kansas, the No. 1 seed in the South Regional, but lost both games. Still, it’s the kind of game they prefer, and Brey knows Iowa State will want to push the tempo.
“They’re unique,” he said. “We played some similar teams in our league, but not anything like this.”
The same could be said for those controversial green uniforms Notre Dame broke out recently. They were panned by many fashionistas and even got a negative review from President Obama, who said the “neon glow thing didn’t work for me.”
There’s no doubt the adidas-designed uniforms caused a commotion, but the Irish will be wearing a more traditional white for their tourney opener.
“I could tell a lot of people weren’t telling the truth to me when they said how they felt about them,” Cooley said. “I personally really liked them.”
So did Atkins.
“I wish Obama was on our side about the jerseys,” he said. “I like them a lot.”
If they win, maybe the Irish can show them off again.