Xavier-Notre Dame Preview
Notre Dame entered conference play struggling to find some
confidence after a frustrating start to the year that included
losing their best player to injury.
Xavier was trying to regroup, too, though more from an ugly
brawl with a rival in December that threatened to derail the entire
Neither the Fighting Irish nor the Musketeers looked like they’d
make it back to the NCAA tournament this season. Yet they’re
meeting in Friday’s South Regional, proof that they were tough
enough to figure out a way to regroup and salvage a season that was
going nowhere just two months ago.
”We’ve definitely had our bumps in the road,” Xavier senior
Kenny Frease said, ”but as a team, I think we’ve been able to
really come together the past few weeks.”
He could’ve been speaking about either team.
The seventh-seeded Fighting Irish (22-11) lost preseason all-Big
East pick Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury in
November, then lost four of nine to start the season. They stood at
just 11-8 in the middle of January before a nine-game winning
streak – starting against unbeaten Syracuse – finally got Notre
Dame moving in the right direction.
That’s when a team that looked different than what coach Mike
Brey had envisioned in preseason finally started to figure out how
to win with its new makeup. Junior forward Jack Cooley improved
from averaging about four points last year to 12 points and nine
rebounds this season to become an all-conference pick, while
sophomores Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins each averaged about 12 in a
That trio, along with senior captain Scott Martin, helped Notre
Dame finish third in the Big East with 13 league victories before
losing to eventual champion Louisville in the conference
Now Notre Dame is back in the NCAAs for the third straight
season and eighth time in 12 years under Brey in a run that Atkins
called ”an up-and-down kind of roller-coaster year.”
”To have a year start off in that sort of fashion where we
didn’t have Tim and lose him right away almost seemed unfair for
really our team,” Cooley said. ”But then to do what we did and
pull it together so well and go on that nine-game win streak in the
Big East is just huge and it was a pretty fun year.”
Things didn’t look any better for the 10th-seeded Musketeers
(21-12) in January than it did for Notre Dame. Yet Xavier’s fall
followed a reputation-destroying incident that was replayed on
sports and news shows alike – the oncourt brawl at the end of a win
against crosstown rival Cincinnati on Dec. 10.
The Musketeers were ranked No. 8 nationally and unbeaten at the
time. But three of their top players, including star guard Tu
Holloway, faced suspensions of varying lengths. And Xavier followed
the brawl by losing five of six in a stretch that Holloway said
drained the team’s confidence.
Things didn’t get much better in February. The team alternated
wins and losses for the entire month.
Xavier coach Chris Mack said his players became closer as they
tried to ignore the heavy criticism that followed the fight. And
that might have been what helped them finally regroup with a win
against Charlotte in the regular-season finale, followed by two
wins in the Atlantic 10 tournament before falling to St.
Bonaventure in the final.
”I don’t think there’s a manual for a coach, for a program, for
your players, in how you respond,” Mack said. ”But the one thing
I never questioned about our kids is their desire to compete and
want to get better.
”We stepped in a lot of venues where we heard about the
incident, but Xavier basketball is so much bigger than 10 bad
minutes on a Saturday.”
Holloway is averaging a team-best 17 points per game, while
junior guard Mark Lyons is averaging almost 16 in an experienced
For Notre Dame’s Martin, Xavier’s seventh straight appearance in
the NCAA tournament is proof of the players’ toughness.
”It’s not an easy thing to do in college basketball because
when you’re down, people will step on you and keep you down,”
Martin said of the Musketeers. You really have to credit them. They
were able to pick themselves up and keep going.”