CLEVELAND — Earlier in this NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati tried to physically whip Kentucky with muscle. Then West Virginia tried to mentally defeat Kentucky with pressure. Now, Notre Dame will try to upset Kentucky with precise execution.
Kentucky must combat back-to-basics basketball in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Region finals here Saturday. Notre Dame (32-5) is the nation's second-best shooting team (51.1-percent accuracy) and fourth-best in assist-to-turnover ratio.
All five starters average double-digit points in the NCAA Tournament.
"We've had each other's back throughout the entire thing," team leader Pat Connaughton said. "And that's been really beautiful to watch from the inside, but I'd imagine even more beautiful from the outside when things you don't believe can happen do."
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Even though Kentucky equaled a Sweet 16 record for margin of victory by routing West Virginia 78-39 on Thursday, the Cats acknowledged the threat Notre Dame's precision poses.
"We know they're going to be dangerous," Devin Booker said.
Fresh in mind was Notre Dame's 81-70 victory over Wichita State on Thursday. The Irish made 18 of 24 shots after halftime (six of eight from three-point range) in advancing.
"Everybody saw what they did in the second half," Booker said. "We just can't give up threes. How they're shooting it, they can make it dangerous for us."
Kentucky, still on track for a historic status as college basketball's first unbeaten national champion since 1976, has been wary of three-point shooting all season. The Cats rank third nationally in three-point defense by holding opponents to 26.7 percent accuracy. The idea is to force potential three-point shooters to try to score off the drive against UK's imposing front line.
"It's one of our norms," Willie Cauley-Stein said. "One of the rules when we first started coming together. A lot of the speculation had it that a way to beat us was to make a bunch of threes. We made it the team norm. We're not giving you a bunch of threes."
Booker suggested UK Coach John Calipari made it more than a norm.
"Coach Cal calls it a sin to give up threes" he said. To give up a three is to risk excommunication from the game (aka a benching).
"Nobody wants to be the one to go against the game plan or invent some new thing," Booker said.
As Kentucky has worked for months on developing a team-first approach, so Notre Dame began working long ago to produce a team that features five playing with one mind.
"We started in the summer," Coach Mike Brey said.
As with Kentucky, the Irish took a foreign trip (to Italy) in the summer to fuse a team ideal. Early-season victories over Michigan State and Florida State gave Notre Dame ideas.
"At Christmas, we started to think, you know, we're not that 17-loss team anymore," Brey said in reference to last season's struggles. "We've got a chance at this thing. But the foreign tour was huge because you got more time with them. And, my God, we needed more time after losing 17 games."
Winning the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament — beating Duke and North Carolina on back-to-back days — in Charlotte, N.C., no less — gave the Irish what Connaughton called an "inner confidence" going into the NCAA Tournament.
"Not many people have confidence in us besides those close to us," he said of the game against Kentucky. "But not many people had confidence in us winning the ACC Tournament or beating two teams with such historic success."
Notre Dame should not be afraid. The Irish had a 5-2 record against ACC heavyweights Duke, Virginia, North Carolina and Louisville this season. Counting NCAA Tournament victories over Northeastern, Butler and Wichita State, Notre Dame is 11-3 against teams in the field.
The Notre Dame players respectfully rejected the David-and-Goliath story line fitting the game against Kentucky.
"No," Connaughton said. "You've got to go out and have confidence. Great line by Coach (Bob) Huggins about how David beat Goliath in that battle.
"We're not going to go about it that way. That didn't really work for (West Virginia)."
Like Kentucky, Notre Dame will trust what got them to the program's first Elite Eight game since 1979: Precision and the elemental basketball skills of shooting, passing and decision-making.
"The line I use is we smell blood in the water," Connaughton said. "This team has been so great when it comes to not being satisfied getting to a place. They feel that next round. They feel that ability to be even more of a special team."