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

balanced attack.

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.”