NCAA Tournament Preview Southwest Region - First Round (15) Akron vs. (2) Notre Dame

Friday March 18 - 1:40 PM ET

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The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, one of the biggest surprises of the 2010-11 basketball season,  will face the Akron Zips in a Southwest Region first round contest Friday.  Led by Ben Hansbrough, the Big East Player of the Year, Notre Dame finished 26-6 and advanced to the semifinals of the Big East tournament before losing 83-77 in overtime to Louisville. Notre Dame earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament on the strength of its play in the Big East Conference. The Fighting Irish will be appearing in the tournament for the sixth time during coach Mike Brey’s tenure.  Notre Dame was one-and-done in the 2010 Tournament, losing to the Old Dominion Monarchs in a 6-11 game, 51-50.

Akron emerged from the parity-riven Mid American Conference, winning two overtime games during the conference tournament, including a 66-65 overtime win over Kent State in the championship game last Saturday to claim the MAC’s automatic bid to the Big Dance. This is only the third trip to the NCAAs in Akron’s history as a program. The 23-12 Zips feature a blend of experience and youth.  Several key contributors, including leading scorer Nikola Cvetinovic ; three-point marksmen Brett McClanahan and Steve McNees; and frontcourt mainstay Brett McKnight were on the Akron team that won the 2009 MAC championship and lost to Gonzaga 77-64 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Coach Keith Dambrot’s MAC daddies are balanced and deep, with nine players averaging at least 10 minutes of playing time per game, and six players averaging more than eight points per game.  Senior forward Cvetinovic leads the way with 11.9 points per game, with McKnight chipping in 10.3 and McClanahan 10.1 points per game, respectively.  Center Zeke Marshall, a seven-footer with a massive wingspan, blocked 2.5 shots per game to anchor the Akron defense.  The Zips give up an average of 65.6 points per game, but they hold opponents to 41.9 percent shooting from the field. 

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If any team is going to test Marshall and the Zips’ defense, it is the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.  Led by Ben Hansbrough’s 18.5 points per game, the Fighting Irish averaged 76 points per game on 46.6 percent shooting, and ranked third in the nation in offensive efficiency.  The Fighting Irish are one of the better three-point shooting teams in the field of 68, ranking 16th in the nation in three-point percentage at 39.4 percent.  Hansbrough knocked down 82 of the 186 three-point attempts (44.1 percent) he took while teammate Tim Abromaitis went 72-of-170 (42.4 percent) from three-point range.

The Fighting Irish are solid on the defensive end of the court, holding opponents to 65.6 points per game and 40.9 percent shooting from the field.  Rangy senior forward Carleton Scott averaged nearly two blocked shots per game while grabbing 7.1 rebounds per game to lead Notre Dame’s defense. 

Although Notre Dame should have the benefit of a vocal partisan crowd at the United Center, this game may be closer than most people think.  The Zips have the interior length and girth to bang with the Fighting Irish’s bigs, and Akron also owns the perimeter playmakers that can knock down tough shots.  The story for Notre Dame this season has been Hansbrough’s singular intensity and “will-to-win” that he imbues in his teammates.  Will that be enough on Friday?  It should be: No second seed has lost to a 15-seed since 2001, and only four have lost to 15-seeds overall. 

By Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer




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