SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins believes his team is ready to take the next step after failing to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament the last three years.
The No. 7-seeded Irish (25-9) should certainly feel battle-tested as they go into their game against 10th-seeded Iowa State (22-11) on Friday in the second round of the West Regional at Dayton, Ohio.
Notre Dame is among eight Big East teams in the tournament, most of any conference. The Irish are coming off a 12-point loss to NCAA overall No. 1 seed Louisville in the Big East semifinals. That followed a 12-point quarterfinal win over Marquette, the No. 3 seed in the East Regional.
We’ve played some of the best teams in the country in the Big East week in and week out, Atkins said. That is really going to get us ready for the tournament coming up.
Coach Mike Brey, as much as anybody, wants Notre Dame to make a deep run. But he took a moment to acknowledge the achievement of just making the tournament for a fourth straight year.
To show up in that bracket again... I never want to take these days for granted, he said. Our senior class, all they’ve known is the NCAA tournament. Quite frankly, they’re spoiled. They have no idea maybe how some other programs live.
Notre Dame lost to Xavier in its NCAA opener last year. The Irish were bounced after two games in 2011 and were one and done in 2010.
If Notre Dame wins Friday, its next game would be against either Big Ten tournament champion Ohio State or Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament champion Iona.
Asked about his team’s chances of getting to the Sweet 16, Brey changed the subject and said his team simply needs to win an opening game.
Then we’ll reconvene and figure it out, he said.
Brey compared Iowa State to some of the teams the Irish faced in the Big East.
The Cyclones lost to Kansas in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. They own wins over nationally ranked Oklahoma State and Kansas State.
Notre Dame will be facing an ISU team that makes a nation-leading 9.9 three-pointers a game and whose 79.8-point scoring average ranks fourth.
Perimeter defense will be the key, Brey said. Notre Dame opponents are shooting 32 percent from long range.
So far we’ve been pretty good when we’ve had to take away the arc, he said.
Brey said he’s been sick in recent days and is glad the Irish aren’t playing until Friday. They played three late-night games in the Big East tournament.
We could use a day or two to get our legs under us before we crank it back up again, he said.
Once the Irish return to practice, Brey will be careful how they go about their business.
The one thing you don’t want to do is over-coach right now or over-practice, he said. You want guys fresh and you want to be injury-free and the frame of mind really good.