Friday, March 21, 2008

Survive and Advance

"I tip my hat to their defense."

If you were told that quote was going to be the defining postgame comment of Thursday night's Notre Dame-George Mason tilt, chances are you'd be thinking, 'Well, Mike Brey's team blew it again'. Falling in love with its own offensive prowess, they clearly suffered from having no fallback plan when teams figure out how to tie up their streak shooters.

Except this time, it was Mason senior leader Folarin Campbell praising the clampdown effort after going 1-of-12 from the field in a 68-50 Irish victory. It was Brey's fourth first-round win in five NCAA berths with the Irish, and after a blistering start the Irish settled in and played against type as they sent the 2006 Final Four participants home early.

The hot opening was nothing surprising - the Irish drained six of their first nine shots from 3-point territory and raced to a 23-7 edge less than 8 minutes into the contest. It was at that point that a number of CBS affiliates pulled the plug on what looked like a blowout in the making and put up Wisconsin v. Cal State-Fullerton, much to the chagrin on Irish faithful in Chicago, Cincinnati, Charlotte, and other cities in the Midwest and Northeast. Those who stay tuned didn't see much from that point out, as the Irish were content to trade baskets with a team of average shooters and key in on the one player with the range to make some of the big momentum turning shots (Campbell). The end result was not all that special, as long as you are in the camp that thinks an NCAA tournament victory by double-digits over a team with two Final Four veterans should be placed in the "unimpressive" category.

As expected, there was only so much each team could do against the other's big man - Will Thomas & Luke Harangody each had a commanding presence in the game. Thomas scored 25 points for the Patriots, while Harangody dropped his 18th double-double of the seasons with 18 points and 14 rebounds. The key again for the Irish was backcourt play - Notre Dame's rose to make shots and play aggressive (Kyle McAlarney had 15 points, while Tory Jackson collected 8 rebounds) while Mason couldn't never get anybody but Thomas untracked. With the Irish keying on Campbell with a rotating duo of Zach Hillesland and Ryan Ayers, the four Mason starters other than Thomas made one field goal each. All told they shot just 33% from the floor. And it wasn't only that they were laying bricks, it was an aggressive, dare-I-say defense first gameplan that made the difference. Hillesland in particular stood out, grabbing 11 rebounds and 3 steals, while Rob Kurz (who head-scratchingly managed to foul out) had four blocked shots.

There were indeed some nits to pick, such as why the Irish felt content to slow the game down when they clearly were poised to run Mason out of the building UCLA vs. Mississippi Valley State-style. Brey said afterwards that he's expecting tomorrow's matchup with Washington State to follow a similar pattern, which could be dangerous considering Wazzu's ability from 3-point with players like Derrick Low and Taylor Rochestie. But while the Cougars have a better step-back-and-hit-it cache than the Patriots, they play terrific defense - 3rd nationally in points allowed at 57.1 per opponent, and display great discipline on the other end of the floor with an average of 10 turnovers per game (third fewest nationally).

It may not be flashy, but Tony Bennett's style of basketball preaches fundamentals and discipline, and usually leads to the Cougars wearing out opponents with their own mistakes; in the first-round matchup against Winthrop, WSU turned a tie-game at halftime into a 71-40 rout by dominating the glass and nailing one high-percentage shot after another. Aron Baynes, at 6-10 Wazzu's top interior player, was a perfect 9-of-9 from the field, while the Eagles couldn't buy a basket with a team performance of 4-of-24 in the second half. The quick-take preview: Notre Dame's got one of the best shooting lineups the Cougars have seen all season, while WSU is one of the most aggressive, disciplined teams on the defensive end that the Irish will have played this year. Clearly, something must give, and if the Irish get quality production from some of their non-headliners like Kurz and Hillesland again, look for them to dance on to the Sweet 16. Like the Mason contest, ND-WSU probably won't go into the books as an instant classic no matter who wins, but like the classics from earlier today (Drake v. Western Kentucky, UConn v. San Diego) proved, the blessed NCAA Tournament, unlike it's insane and indecisive cousin known as the BCS, isn't about impressing sports writers or talk radio blowhards. It's about one thing: survive and advance.

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