Notre Dame didn't draw the toughest possible pod for the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament, but they certainly didn't get a boring one, nor an easy one. We'll leave speculation on any potential plotlines and strategy for the hypothetical matchup with the Winthrop/Washington State winner for a future post. For now though, the fifth-seeded Irish must prepare for battle with 12th-seeded George Mason, CAA champions and no strangers to long-shot tourney success.
Here's the number one thing to know about the matchup: there are six players in the NCAA Tournament that average 15 points and 10 rebounds per game, and two of them will be on the floor tomorrow night in Denver. For the Irish, it's Luke Harangody, for GMU it's Will Thomas, the bruising senior who went toe-to-toe with UConn (when they had a frontline of Rudy Gay & Josh Boone, along with Hilton Armstrong) in the Elite 8 two years ago. Thomas put up 19 points and 12 rebounds over 44 minutes in the overtime victory that clinched Mason's Final Four berth, the second 11-seed ever to advance that far.
A more complete breakdown of each squad's strengths and weaknesses can be found over on SportsNation, where the excellent Irish blog Rakes of Mallow has round tables with both George Mason Basketball and The CAA: Life as a Mid-Major. The overall theme is quite simple: statistically, Notre Dame is a much stronger shooting team than the Patriots. They distribute, they score, and they can be fatal from three-point land: the Irish lead the nation in assists (18.9 per game), rank sixth in 3-pt. accuracy (41.6%) and 18th in total scoring at 80.6 points per game. Mason isn't as prolific with 69.2 points per, and while they shoot slightly better overall (they rate a 46.9% compared to ND's 45.9), Jim Larranaga's crew shoots only 35% from beyond the arc. If the Irish are on with their shots, particularly from long-range, they'll be a tough beat for the Mid-Major that Could.
But as anybody who observed the '06 run could tell you, George Mason is a middie in name only. The Patriots play big-time basketball and aren't in awe of anybody, led by a pair of seniors (Thomas and Folarin Campbell) who were big contributors on a Final Four run that took out Michigan State, North Carolina, & UConn. This season they pushed Villanova to the limit and beat South Carolina, & Kansas State, withstanding 30 points from Michael Beasley in a rare shootout win, 87-77. One of the wild-card factors will be how George Mason deals with a return to the tournament as a known quantity - they can't pretend that some people out there are expecting another head-turning run. Will they let that act as a burden or see it as liberating?
For Notre Dame, despite all the platitudes rightly placed on Harangody, the reality is he's rarely been the key behind an Irish win this season. Don't misinterpret that - Notre Dame couldn't hope to be anywhere close to where they are without him. But while some would tell you that last Thursday's game versus Marquette provided the gameplan to beat the Irish (double and even triple Harangody, force him to press, get him in foul trouble) the real key is in the backcourt. Notre Dame has lost seven games this season, and Kyle McAlarney was almost invisible in nearly all of them. In the two losses to Baylor and Georgia Tech in the Virgin Islands, he shot a combined 4/19 for 10 points. In the two blowout losses early in Big East play to Georgetown and Marquette, he scored 8 and 10 respectively and the Irish got dumped on even with a massive game by Harangody against MU (29 points). Against UConn Harangody dropped 32 and against Louisville 40, and in both games McAlarney was 3/14 and 4/14 from the field respectively. While the Big East Player of the Year is sure to draw plenty of attention, Larranaga would do well to note that bottling Notre Dame's backcourt has been key to their demise.
Notre Dame arrives at this tournament exuding confidence because they feel (not without cause) that they can score with anybody. But the belief that they'll just keep making shots only carries them so far, as has been evidenced several times in the second half of Big East play when substantial leads wilted late in the second half before a big play or two sealed victory. You don't generally keep that kind of luck in the NCAAs. In that sense, Mason will be one of the toughest opponents ND has faced all season, since they're fully aware of their own limitations and compensate with a tenacious brand of defense which (yes, Bill Raftery) mixes zone with man-to-man principles. This is no cake-walk and it comes with all the familiar history of the NCAA Tournament that at least one 12 beats a five every year. But if the Irish backcourt holds serve, look for an advance to meet the winner of Winthrop/WSU.