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Archive for Thursday, March 27, 2003

Irish understand underdog role

March 27, 2003

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— Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was in town only a few minutes before he was put in his place.

The Orange County (Calif.) Register ran a lengthy article on the wonderful confluence of NCAA men's basketball tournament pairings that has brought Arizona, Duke and Kansas University together in one locale. The secondary headline read:

"The West Regional at The Pond will showcase three of coaching's elite: Krzyzewski, Olson and Williams."

The slighted one, Brey, doesn't mind. He understands the hype, and agrees his career is still in its infancy compared to Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, Arizona's Lute Olson and Kansas' Roy Williams. Likewise, Notre Dame's celebrated first Sweet 16 appearance in 15 years is a feat expected yearly at the other three schools.

"We aspire to that kind of consistency," Brey said. "I use all three of those guys as models."

So what does Notre Dame have the others don't? What can be its advantage when it takes on top-seed Arizona tonight at the Arrowhead Pond, with the winner to face Duke or Kansas Saturday?

How about hunger, tinged with the underdog's aggression?

"We've managed to meet the challenges so far in this tournament," Notre Dame sophomore forward Jordan Cornette said. "No one thought we'd get past the 5-12 game, and no one thought we'd get past Illinois. But we're still here."

Arizona, however, is not No. 12 seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Arizona is quicker, stronger and more experienced than Illinois. Arizona was No. 1 in the country before it lost to UCLA in a Pac-10 tournament game that held all the meaning of a preseason exhibition.

The Irish realize this isn't Illinois, a team with one great player in Brian Cook and a bunch of impatient, talented but erratic freshmen.

"They're a scoring machine," Notre Dame's Torin Francis said. "They like to put points on the board, and so do we. It'll be a matter of who does the job defensively."

Arizona has everything Brey believes a team needs in the postseason, most notably three terrific seniors in point guard Jason Gardner and forwards Luke Walton and Rick Anderson. Arizona sophomore guard Salim Stoudamire hits 44 percent from three-point range, and 6-foot-10 sophomore center Channing Frye has averaged 19 points and 11 rebounds per game in the postseason.

"They have the best talent in the country," Brey said.

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