Who knew the NIT could be f-u-n?
That's how Kentucky saw the National Invitation Tournament after a 65-63 victory at Creighton sent the Cats to a quarterfinal game at Notre Dame on Wednesday night.
"Just fun for us," embattled UK Coach Billy Gillispie said after Monday night's game. "We're having a great time."
Whether a harbinger of future success or a death rattle for the Gillispie era, two hard-earned NIT victories sent Kentucky to Notre Dame in a good frame of mind.
To hear leading scorer Jodie Meeks, who hit the winning shot against Creighton, the Cats need to stay upbeat as their coach seems one defeat away from a firing squad made up of UK President Lee Todd and Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
"It's just a mind-set," Meeks said. "As long as we have our minds right, there's nothing to worry about."
Gillispie aside, Kentucky's NIT experience will continue going from one festive atmosphere to another. This unexpected trail of cheers began with Cats fans enjoying the first "real" game in Memorial Coliseum since 1976. After beating visiting UNLV, Kentucky helped Creighton tingle at the prospect of a Southeastern Conference opponent in Omaha for the first time since 1940.
Now, Notre Dame welcomes Kentucky as the last opponent in its Joyce Center. Notre Dame, a place where athletic ghosts reside, sees the Cats as a fitting bookend to the arena's first opponent: UCLA in 1968.
Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey spoke of a "neat night" as the Irish say goodbye to the Joyce Center, which will undergo an extensive renovation.
How neat the night is for Kentucky figures to depend on how well the Cats contain forward Luke Harangody and guard Kyle McAlarney.
UK assistant Glynn Cyprien, who headed the preparation work for Notre Dame, likened the pair to Kentucky's tandem of Meeks and Patrick Patterson.
"Similar to us," Cyprien said. "Two big-time scorers."
Notre Dame (20-14 overall and 14-3 at home), depends mightily on H arangody, a 6-foot-8 junior. By averaging 25.2 points and 12.8 rebounds in league play, he became the first player to lead the Big East in scoring and rebounding two straight years.
Harangody has recorded 23 double-doubles this season, bringing his career total to 48.
"By far, the best post player we've played all year long," Cyprien said. Other than fast-break opportunities, "everything is going to run through him."
Brey noted Harangody's combination of size, hands and "quick bounce." Then the Notre Dame coach cited another quality.
"You just love his motor," Brey said. "His motor is there every day. It doesn't matter if you're playing against Patrick Patterson or a walk-on in practice, he wants to win every drill. ...
"That's been contagious in making the rest of the guys tough."
Of course, Harangody will be competing against Patterson, UK's top front-court player, in this game. Patterson looked forward to the challenge of facing a player who combines low-post presence and perimeter shooting.
"Obviously, he's a brute inside," Patterson said. "He can also shoot the ball, which amazes me the most about his game. ... I'm fascinated by him. I know he's a tremendous athlete."
McAlarney adds three-point shooting in quantity (120 treys, or eight more than Meeks this season) and quality (42.9-percent accuracy).
"Probably the best shooter we'll have faced all season long," Cyprien said.
If McAlarney's not hitting, Notre Dame has other three-point options in Ryan Ayers (43.4-percent accuracy), Tory Jackson (36 percent) and Luke Zeller (34.3 percent).
Brey likened Kentucky to West Virginia in terms of long, lanky athletes. West Virginia beat the Irish twice this season. The Notre Dame coach also saw UK as similar to Pittsburgh in terms of emphasis on getting points from the low post.
"When we get beat on the offensive board (by opponents' put-backs), it can be a long night for us," Brey said.
Speaking of long nights, Notre Dame had one when it lost to West Virginia in the Big East Tournament in New York. That loss sealed Notre Dame's post-season fate.
"The first thing I told the players is, 'We're definitely going to be in the NIT,' " Brey said. "That was the reality.
"'Now let's see if we can work our way back to New York.'"
The winner of the Kentucky-Notre Dame game advances to the NIT semifinals against Penn State in New York.