N.D. vs. X.U. (Round of 64) Preview
10 Xavier (21-12) vs. 7 Notre Dame (22-11)
2nd Round - South Regional - Greensboro, NC
Friday, March 16 - 9:45 pm ET (est.)
While Xavier's tournament hopes looked unbelievably dim just three weeks ago, the Musketeers find themselves in a strong position to win a game now. A strong showing the Atlantic 10 tournament has revived the fans' faith. It's also done wonders for the team as well.
Once believed to be a dysfunctional group that didn't enjoy playing with each other, the team has rallied together to make a seventh straight NCAA tournament appearance. Few would say that the team which showed much emotion against UD and SLU doesn't enjoy playing with each other. Between Wells lifting Lyons in the air, or the entire bench locking arms, Xavier has finally developed something which it had lost for months: chemistry.
That, and some strong play from the big three (Lyons, Frease, and Holloway) will carry Xavier. They certainly cannot have the egg Holloway laid last year against Marquette - 5 points on 1 of 8 shooting.
They'll need all of Tu Holloway's moxie and creativity with shots and drives; Dez Wells and Kenny Frease's clutch performances; and Mark Lyons gutsy, back breaking shots. Now, the focus turns to Notre Dame. And Xavier needs the all out effort it got against UD and SLU - the back against the wall type of play.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Anyone who judges this Notre Dame team based on a weak finish (losses at St. John's, at Georgetown, against Louisville, and needing OT to beat USF) to their schedule is foolish. At one point, they ripped off 9 wins in a row against Big East competition. That included victories over ranked Syracuse, Marquette, and UConn.
In terms of common opponents, ND lost 61-57 to Georgia on a neutral site; they fell 73-53 at Gonzaga; and they lost 71-55 at Cincinnati. Take as much, or as little, as you want out of those contests.
The Irish like to slow the game down much more than Xavier, similar to St. Louis. They'll squeeze the life out of the ball, dribbling for 20+ seconds and killing the shot clock. That leads to ball screens and chaos, as they will usually chuck up a three and hope for an offensive rebound. As every Xavier fan knows, three pointers have killed the Musketeer defense this season. And if Frease, Taylor, Robinson, and Walker don't come to play, they could get eaten alive on the boards.
They aren't wildly efficient on offense, but they do play strong defense, allowing 6 whole points less than Xavier. Particularly, they lock down on the three pointer, which isn't necessarily Xavier's strength anyway.
But if Xavier is going to win, they'll need strong play out of their big three/four to match Notre Dame's. Point guard Eric Atkins (12.2 ppg, 4.1 apg), guard Jerian Grant (12.3 ppg, 4.9 apg), Scott Martin (9.5 ppg, 5.7 rpg), and Jack Cooley (12.4 ppg, 9 rpg) are the key contributors. And, as you see, they are a balanced team. No one player will shoot it extraordinarily from three, or burn you, but they could all do it on any given night.
Consider how well this group has done, given their top player, Tim Abromaitis (15.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg last year) has missed all but two games this year.
You know Xavier's story by now, so there's no point in recapping it. Instead, let's focus on Xavier's keys to victory:
- Kenny Frease. Without the big man's strong play down the stretch, Xavier wouldn't be where they are right now. They need him to come up huge in this game if they want to win. He can help control Cooley down low, and prevent those offensive rebounds. He'll also be helpful in cracking Notre Dame's defense, particularly in establishing that inside outside game.
- The three. If the Musketeers can make some threes, particularly in transition, they can bust up the way the Irish want to play. If this game is in the 50s, the Irish will win. If it's in the high 60s, low 70s, it's Xavier's game. That leads to...
- Tempo. Xavier will have difficulty trying to play a strong 35 seconds worth of defense against Notre Dame's offense. That means it's critical to not allow second chances, and to try and break that tempo whenever possible. The Musketeers have to get out and run, get Notre Dame into a shootout.
- Defense. Without the kind of defensive effort they got late against UD, or for the majority of the time against SLU, Xavier will struggle. If they can harass Atkins, they'll be in good shape. Put some pressure on the ball, which means Lyons has to stay out of foul trouble. With any luck, Xavier will force a lot of bad and rushed shots out of Notre Dame.
- Tu Holloway. He was Xavier's entire team last season, and received very little help. He then disappeared in the NCAA tournament. If the Muskies are to win on Friday night, they need Tu to play a huge role. He has to be the dominant point guard - willing to take the big shot when they need it. If that means he has to be a ball hog to get the offense going, so be it. It worked against SLU and UD. They need that again, because the team feeds off of him.
Xavier falls behind early, attempting to get around Notre Dame's ball screens, and they trail at half. Behind defensive adjustments, and strong guard play, the Musketeers rally for a win. Xavier 71, Notre Dame 67