March Madness – (3) Irish Shooters Will Test (1) Kentucky

(3) Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. (1) Kentucky Wildcats (-11.5, o/u)

The No. 3 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (32-5, 14-4 ACC) get some reward for knocking off perennial overachiever Wichita State in the Sweet 16. Today, the Irish will be back in action against the undefeated, No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats (37-0, 18-0 SEC) at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland (8:49 p.m. Eastern).

The Wildcats have looked like the best team in the country since the opening week of the season. But they have gone from a cut-above to downright-terrifying in recent weeks, and put the fear of God into all remaining opponents with their 78-39 annihilation of West Virginia 78-39 in the Sweet 16.

“They were what I thought they were,” said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. “That’s the best defensive team I think that I’ve ever coached against. And when they’re making shots, there’s nobody going to beat them.”

John Calipari’s team started the game with an 18-2 run before going into the half up by 26 points. Perhaps the bulletin board material – West Virginia freshman guard Daxter Miles Jr. guaranteed a win – sparked a fire under the Wildcats, who held the Mountaineers to 24.1-percent shooting.

Because of Miles’ prediction, it was reported some Kentucky players wanted to win by 50.

“Well, that didn’t come from me because that’s not how I coach,” Calipari said. “I mean, what, someone’s going to come in and say we’re going to lose and they’re going to say they’re going to win. But we say at some point you have to step in the ring, we’ll lift the rope, you’ve got to come in here.”

The Wildcats vaunted defense will be put to the test tonight against the Irish, though. Notre Dame is the second-best shooting team in the nation (51.0-percent for the year) and looked every bit of it on Thursday against Wichita State.

The Irish shot 55.6-percent from the floor against the Shockers, including 9-19 from beyond the arc. Those numbers are even more impressive when you consider that Wichita State had the 11th-ranked defense in the nation, holding teams to just 57.4 PPG.

Notre Dame raced to an early 13-point lead but saw it dwindle to three by halftime. The veteran bunch stayed focused, though, and opened up a 14-point lead partway through the second frame, shooting a preposterous 75-percent from the field in the final 20 minutes.

Point guard Demetrius Jackson scored 20 points to lead the team, while three other starters had at least 15. Leading-scorer Jerian Grant was content to be a distributer, scoring just nine points but dishing out 11 dimes.

Head coach Mike Brey praised his team’s stellar performance under the big lights: “I said, ‘Fellas, been here before … Little did I know it was going to be a lightning strike, a flat-out lightning strike.”

“It’s like blood in the water,” said Pat Connaughton, who scored 16 points and added ten rebounds. “You feel it, and you want to keep getting stops so you can keep running. It’s something you can’t get enough of.”

In the trends, Kentucky is just 1-2 ATS in the tourney. They covered against West Virginia (obviously), but narrowly missed the 16-point spread against Cincinnati (64-51) and took their foot off the gas against Hampton (79-56), failing to reach the 35-point margin needed. The Irish are also 1-2 ATS in the tournament, only covering as one-point dogs against the Shockers.

While Kentucky may indeed end the season without a loss, look for Notre Dame and its outside shooting to give the Wildcats a game. That’s why the Fighting Irish (+11.5) is the play.

(Photo credit: Thomson20192 (flickr) [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/legalcode]. Photo has been cropped.)

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