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Monday, March 4, 2024
The Observer

Carson: This could be Notre Dame’s year for a Final Four run

Let’s get something out of the way: Notre Dame probably deserved a No. 4 seed.

A more important thought: The difference between a No. 4 and 5 seed is so negligible that it isn’t worth getting worked up about either way. Especially when the path presented to the Irish is as favorable as the one the selection committee gave Notre Dame.

In many ways, 2017 presents Irish head coach Mike Brey’s best chance yet to get to the Final Four. Two years ago, Brey had his best team at Notre Dame, yet the committee threw the Irish into the Midwest Region with undefeated, maybe-best-team-ever Kentucky. If Notre Dame plays any other team in the Elite Eight that year, eventual finalists Wisconsin and Duke included, the Irish win and advance to the Final Four.

Irish junior forward Bonzie Colson dribbles into the Georgia Tech defense during Notre Dame's 64-60 victory over the Yellow Jackets on Sunday night. Colson picked up 20 points and 11 rebounds in his 17th double-double of the season.
Irish junior forward Bonzie Colson dribbles into the Georgia Tech defense during Notre Dame's 64-60 victory over the Yellow Jackets on Feb. 26.

But Notre Dame didn’t play any other team. It played Kentucky. It happens.

Last year, perhaps if the Irish would’ve been matched with any other No. 1 seed, their effort in Philadelphia would’ve been enough. But North Carolina was never a great matchup for Notre Dame — the win at Purcell Pavilion during the season included — and the Tar Heels were playing at an extremely high level last March.

This year, however, there’s no Kentucky between the Irish and the Final Four; no team as strong as North Carolina was last year.

This is not to say that there won’t be challenges for Notre Dame — in fact, Brey and his squad will face a significant test at every round of the tournament, including the opening one — but we’ve seen this Notre Dame team pass similar challenges this season.

Starting in the immediate future, though: No. 12 seed Princeton.

At first glance, you never want the Ivy League champion. Ask Baylor last year, who got out-rebounded and lost a 5/12 matchup to Yale. We’re not too far removed from Harvard winning first-round games in opening-round contests in 2013 and 2014, nor are we that far away from Cornell’s Sweet 16 run in 2010.

In the last seven years, Ivy League champions have won four first-round contests, and even when they haven’t won, they’ve pushed ultra-talented Kentucky and North Carolina teams in 2011 and 2015, respectively.

You should be wary of Princeton. But Notre Dame’s track record this year shows it’s well-suited to deal with the Tigers.

It might not be pretty, no, but of Notre Dame’s nine losses this year, just one — Georgia Tech — came against a team that isn’t seeded ahead of the Irish in this year’s NCAA tournament. This team has been incredibly consistent all season against the teams it should beat, snagging wins over Colorado, Northwestern, Iowa, Pittsburgh, Clemson, Miami, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Wake Forest.

That should give Irish fans a good feeling about Thursday’s opener.

And all things considered, Princeton is probably the weakest of the four No. 12 seeds this year — I see a lot more upset potential with Nevada, Middle Tennessee and UNC Wilmington.

If chalk holds in the early session in Buffalo, New York, this Thursday, it would set up perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the tournament: Notre Dame, with the lowest turnover rate in the country, against West Virginia, who forces turnovers at the highest rate in the nation.

And if these two meet Saturday, all things considered, I like Notre Dame’s chances. When the Mountaineers aren’t turning someone over, their half-court offense has the tendency to turn into an unproductive train wreck, and if anybody isn’t going to turn the ball over en masse against “Press Virginia,”  it should be this Irish squad.

Past that, you’re playing with house money anyway, but the draw remains fairly navigable. Unlike the last two years, where Notre Dame has been in the region with the most talented team on the No. 1 line, the Irish get the weakest of the bunch this year with Gonzaga. No. 2 seed Arizona is a strong team, but if the Wildcats falter, there isn’t much left to worry too much about; the Irish have already downed No. 3 seed Florida State twice, while No. 7 Saint Mary’s would be a navigable Cinderella opponent in the Elite Eight.

Again, it will be far from easy — after all, the Irish have gone to the wire with No. 14 seeds in each of the last two tournaments. But this year, it isn’t too difficult to draw up a path that has the Irish marching into April, as their new T-shirts say, and into the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona.

Notre Dame has wins this year over some of the country’s best — Louisville and Florida State were each among the committee’s top 10 seeds — and has taken care of business when it’s supposed to. It doesn’t turn the ball over, is veteran-led and is playing its best basketball of the season.

Mike Brey has had a pretty good recipe for success the last two tournaments. He might just be able to add the ingredient to go one step further this year.