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Irish ready to start NCAA tourney

Notre Dame has waited a year for this moment, a chance to wipe away last season's disappointing NCAA tournament experience.

The Irish (26-6) tip off in a little less than an hour as the No. 2 seed in the Southwest Region and face 15th-seeded Akron (23-12) in Chicago's United Center.

Last year, Notre Dame clawed its way into the tournament and earned a sixth seed only to fall in the opening game to Old Dominion 51-50 in New Orleans.

"It's drove us all throughout the year," Irish guard Ben Hansbrough said of last season's NCAA loss. "You look at how Old Dominion knocked us out of the first round of the NCAA tournament, and it's been a driving factor all year."

Notre Dame enters today's game against Akron as the favorite, but the Zips sure do not talk like an underdog.

Akron is coming off a run to the Mid-American Conference tournament title, which it won as a sixth seed.

And even though the Zips are 0-2 in the tournament, their coach – Keith Dambrot – isn't going the just happy to be here route.

"Most likely, if we play Notre Dame seven times, they would probably win the series, but we only have to win one game. And that's the beauty of sports," Dambrot said Thursday. "We've been in enough games that, if we play well and they're average, we're going to win."

Part of Akron's confidence might come from its last trip to the tournament when the Zips hung with Gonzaga before losing 77-64.

"It's a different story this year," said Nikola Cvetinovic, Akron's leading scorer with 11.9 points per game. "We learned a lot from that experience, and I think this year that might show up in our maturity level and the way how we're going to play."

Akron's MAC championship has helped get Notre Dame's attention as the Irish look to avoid another upset tournament loss.

"I can't emphasize enough they just cut a net down on Saturday with a magical run through the MAC," Irish coach Mike Brey said.

Notre Dame's determination not to let history repeat itself and an opponent the players are not overlooking should add up to an Irish victory this afternoon.