FORT WAYNE – Notre Dame wasnt supposed to be here.
The Irish were written off after finishing non-conference play without a significant victory and losses to Missouri (87-58 Nov. 12), Gonzaga (73-53 Nov. 30) and Indiana (69-58 Dec. 17).
But a school-record nine-game Big East winning streak propelled the Irish to a seventh consecutive 20-win season, a third-place conference finish and a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Notre Dame (22-11) plays No. 10 seed Xavier (21-12) at 9:45 p.m. Friday in the South Regions second round. The winner plays either No. 2 seed Duke (27-6) or No. 15 seed Lehigh (26-7) Sunday.
We maxed out the regular season, and we probably maxed out the (Big East) tournament to get where were at, coach Mike Brey said. And now Id like to see us max out an NCAA tournament experience. I dont know what that would mean for this team yet, but ask me like Thursday, when were in Greensboro.
In order to max out its NCAA tournament experience, Notre Dame will need to fix two problems that led to a 2-3 record in its last five games.
The Irish need to improve their offense and get center Jack Cooley to return to the double-double form he had during their winning streak.
When we were on that run in February, we shot it pretty well, and you know, you can tell you went about moving it, being patient and getting good shots, Brey said. Were going to have to get into a rhythm.
Notre Dame averaged 67 points and scored 70 or more five times when it won nine straight from Jan. 21 to Feb. 22.
In their three losses in the last five games, the Irish scored more than 50 once – a 61-58 loss at St. Johns on Feb. 25 – and were held to 41 points in an 18-point loss to Georgetown on Feb. 27 and 50 in a 14-point loss to Louisville in the Big East tournament semifinals Friday.
I definitely have to create more for just everyone on the court, if thats coming up, ball screens, or if someone has a one-on-one situation to take that situation and attack aggressively, point guard Eric Atkins said. I think weve all just been passing the ball around lately, kind of just waiting on someone to make a move. But were going to have to be aggressive and play confidently.
Notre Dame also needs to get Cooley going again. The 6-foot-9 junior averaged 15.8 points and 11 rebounds during the nine-game winning streak. Hes averaged 7.4 points and 8 rebounds in the last five games. He didnt have a rebound and scored two points in the loss to Georgetown and was held to nine points and one rebound in a 57-53 overtime win over South Florida in the Big East tournament quarterfinals.
Against South Florida I really got taken out of my element during that game, Cooley said. Ive got to make sure I step up to help them and help our team win.