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Mike Lopresti | | March 27, 2015

Looking to beat UK? Keep it to yourself ...

Sweet 16: Cleveland Recap

CLEVELAND -- Your turn, Notre Dame.

And here’s the bad news. Kentucky is starting to sense the finish line now, so the Wildcats don’t need to be trash-talked into full attention, like West Virginia did.

Is Knute Rockne in the house? This is where the Irish might need to be told to win one for the Gipper. Never mind it’s a different shaped ball.

How about Digger Phelps? He once coached a Notre Dame team that ended UCLA’s 88-game winning streak. Whatever magic wand he waved that day, the Irish could use it now.

Now they play Kentucky Saturday in the Midwest regional championship game.

As in 37-0 Kentucky.

As in look-what-they-just-did-to-West Virginia Kentucky. Crushing the Mountaineers 78-39, jumping ahead 44-18 by halftime. Which means had the Wildcats gone scoreless the second half, they still would have won by five. When’s the last time you could say that about a game in the Sweet 16?

As in smelling-the-Final Four Kentucky.

"We’re right on the verge," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "You can feel it. One game away, and you’re there.

"I think that brings us up to another level."

Oh-oh. You mean there is another level? Something above 37-0, and owning 20-point leads in 23 of the games, and trailing for only 16:32 of 240 minutes so far in the SEC or NCAA tournaments?

It's a frightening thought; that the Wildcats will grow only more intent, more stimulated -- and therefore more invulnerable -- the closer they get.

"We’re on a mission," Aaron Harrison said. "It’s going to be really tough to beat us because we’re so determined and so focused right now."

So now Notre Dame is the lovable little guy standing before Goliath, throwing a basketball version of a Hail Mary, hoping something extraordinary happens. Notre Dame. "We are America’s team tomorrow," Mike Brey said Friday, mentioning he’s getting texts from around an underdog-loving nation.

This after Kentucky’s staggering and sobering romp against West Virginia. Of course, that was partially inspired by some wild pitch words from Daxter Miles Jr., who mentioned to the press Wednesday that Kentucky would be 36-1 when the Mountaineers’ pressing defense was done. And besides, he added, the Wildcats didn’t play as hard as the West Virginians.

All that rather annoyed the Commonwealth of Kentucky, from All-American to tuba player. It was one of the pep band members who shouted at the Mountaineers during their pre-game warmup, "Which one of you fools is Daxter?"

Later, in the Kentucky post-game locker room after the carnage, this was Cauley-Stein:

"You’ve got a bunch of competitive dudes, so you hear that kind of stuff, you’re just like, 'Nah, man, we’ve got to show them who we are.’ He had no right to tell us we don’t play hard. 'C’mon dude, we’re going to show you we play hard.

"He’s better off saying nothing, and trying to catch us off-guard."

And this was Aaron Harrison: "For a team to say they can pressure us and we can’t pass the ball and things like that, we felt like that was really dumb and ridiculous. I know how we respond to trash talk."

So the Wildcats won by 39, and Miles didn’t score a point, and you wondered by the end if the Kentucky players might have even felt a little sorry for him.

"Of course not," Harrison answered. "He shouldn’t have said it."

The worry for Notre Dame and anyone else left in the tournament is that Kentucky might not require outside motivation anymore. An historic feat is out there to drive them.

"At this point I think our guys are going to go bonkers," Cauley-Stein said. "This is it. We’re so close. Three games away. You’ve got to remember how you felt [losing the title game last year]. You go into the next game like they talked trash. Pretend they talked trash."

The suggestion has been made that if there is a team to stop Kentucky, it will be exactly like Notre Dame. Poised, precise, savvy, capable of lighting up the scoreboard with hot outside shooting.

The case can be made the Irish have a chance. Trouble is, it comes with a lot of buts.

Notre Dame is renowned for its efficient offense, which was purring against Wichita State, with an extraordinary 75 percent shooting in the second half. For the season, the Irish are at a 51 field goal percentage.

But ...

The Wildcats’ defensive numbers are at 34.8 shooting and 53.8 allowed. "That’s the best defensive team I think I’ve ever coached against," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said.

The Irish know what is like to beat Kentucky. They did it two seasons ago in a joyous South Bend. "I think their football team rushed the court if I remember right," John Calipari said. "We ran out of there. We saw them coming and we ran the other way."

The school also have a reputation for pulling off upsets.

But ...

Teams have been trying to upset Kentucky for months. They’re 0-37. "You can’t rely on history to play its course," Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton said. "You need to write your own history."

Notre Dame’s last trip to the Elite Eight was 1979. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Irish coach Mike Brey was in high school and gas was 86 cents a gallon. Kentucky has gone to eight Final Fours and won three national championships since then.

Notre Dame shouldn’t be fazed by facing a strong opponent, after the past winter in the rugged ACC. The Irish are 8-1 against teams who advanced to the Sweet 16, including beating Duke and North Carolina back-to-back in Greensboro the ACC tournament, something Brey thinks will be of great value for his team Saturday.

But ...

None of those eight were Kentucky.

Notre Dame is balanced and experienced.

But ...

Kentucky attacks in wave. Brey noticed how the Wildcats were sweating after practice as they passed Friday. "All their guys play 20 minutes, so they can practice hard today," he said. "My guys played the whole game, so we played H-O-R-S-E today. That’s all we did, that’s all we could afford to do."

Maybe the Irish can come close. Maybe they can at least push the Wildcats. Would not that be a moral victory of sorts? Not to them. "We’ll be very disappointed if we don’t win," Brey said. "I know we’re double-digit underdogs. Our locker room, we’ll be on the floor."

Notre Dame is in the top 10 in Division I all-time wins, but only one coach has taken the Irish to a Final Four, in 1978. He was in the grocery line Friday.

"Just do what they’ve been doing," Digger Phelps said of what his advice would be. "Don’t think about anything. Just play your game. That’s what they’ve been doing, and they’ve won eight in a row."

The last Notre Dame opponent with this much national repute might have been that UCLA team in 1974 with the 88-game winning streak. The Irish stopped the Bruins 71-70, but Phelps noted they also won at Indiana, Ohio State, Kansas, South Carolina, against Kentucky in Louisville, and top-10 Marquette at home. "We weren’t in the conference then," he said. "Our conference was the nation."

Forty-one years later, the Irish are in the ACC and have another unbeaten giant to face. What are their chances?

"I have no idea," Phelps said. Which might be the safest thing to say these days about Kentucky opponents.

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