- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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CLEVELAND -- The greatest upset in Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball history came in 1974, and if you've attended a January game at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Indiana, in the 41 years since, it's statistically probable that your halftime doubled as a fond montage down memory lane. And why not? Only one program in college hoops history can claim to have ended the sport's greatest and most authoritative run -- the UCLA Bruins' 88-games-and-three-national-titles-spanning streak, when star center Bill Walton suffered his first loss since his junior season of high school -- and nothing juices a halftime crowd, in years both fertile and lean, than a reminder of the infinite possibilities that lie between those lines.
Forty-one years and two months later, the Irish again find themselves with a chance to upset the un-upsettable: a 37-0 Kentucky Wildcats team that will walk onto the Quicken Loans Arena floor Saturday night after a 78-39 win over No. 5 seed West Virginia that doubled as the first NCAA tournament regional-round opponent lapping since the 1940 Indiana Hoosiers had their way with poor Springfield (Mass). Indeed, this imperial Wildcats team has made a season-long habit of harking back to supposedly impossible standards. In the modern era -- parity, and all that -- you're not supposed to double up Sweet 16 opponents. You're not supposed to finish a season undefeated. Kentucky is collapsing the ages before our very eyes. The usual rules don't apply. Stopping this imperial 40-0 march will require a miracle akin to stopping UCLA in 1974.
So hey: time for Irish coach Mike Brey to gather his players, fire up the 88-1 Commemorative Edition VHS and deliver a solemn, sports-movie speech about the kinds of things that can happen if you just believe.
"Not really," Brey said Friday. "We're not going to be overly dramatic."
Oh. Well, never mind, then.
Thing is, Brey's team doesn't need much help on the belief front. Just as the 1974 Irish were better than history remembers -- they were ranked No. 2, after all -- these Irish are also not your typical underdogs. They happen to be the best offensive team in the country, one that beat Duke and North Carolina on back-to-back nights in Greensboro, North Carolina, earlier this month, and one that just unleashed a Sweet 16 master class against Wichita State's top-20 efficiency defense Thursday night. They know Kentucky is great, of course. But they know they're pretty darn good, too.
"I don't think you can go into a game not believing that you can win a game, especially when you're in the Elite Eight, especially when you've gotten this far and you've beaten some of the teams that you've beaten," senior forward Pat Connaughton said. "We’ve kind of bought into that. We’ve bought into the fact that this team is truly a team, and this team is going to have to continue to be truly a team in order to pull off one of the bigger wins in this program's history."
Key to the game: So, how could Notre Dame do it? As both Brey and Kentucky coach John Calipari noted Friday, Saturday's Midwest Region final pits one of the nation's most efficient offensive teams (averaging 1.21 points per possession) against a defense (allowing 82.8 points per trip) that has been almost casual in its historic dominance. The Irish aren't merely a long-range firing squad, as Thursday night demonstrated. In fact, they've blended their top-20 3-point shooting with an attack that has been the most accurate from 2-point range -- from which they make 58.4 percent of their attempts -- in college basketball.
Brey places great faith in his players' ability to figure things out on the offensive end, to sniff out, and then execute, the devastating bucket explosions that have carried them to eight straight wins. Scoring has always been his team's chief energy source this season, even as Notre Dame has significantly improved on the defensive end in the past month.
Still, Notre Dame's offensive strengths -- its diversity and its ability to stretch the floor with (essentially) four guards -- are also what could leave its defense vulnerable Saturday night. Lately, Brey has had his defenders stick to shooters on the 3-point line, refusing to double-team the post. It's a strategy premised on the idea that, sooner or later, opponents can't score enough 2s to keep pace with what the Irish are doing on the opposite end.
Yet what about a team like Kentucky? What about a team taller than more than a few NBA rosters, that doesn't need to shoot 3s to win?
"I still think we have to be really aware of that because we can absorb 2s and I count on our offensive efficiency to eventually kick in," Brey said. "Now, certainly it's going to be a whole other challenge for our offensive efficiency against their defense, but we're excited about the challenge."
Player to watch: Connaughton. It's unfair to tag just one player in this category, because to beat Kentucky will require something close to perfection from everyone in a navy-and-gold shirt. Jerian Grant will have to be masterful. Demetrius Jackson will have to be disruptive. Zach Auguste will have to hang tough. Steve Vasturia will have to make key plays, as he has all March. But Connaughton might be the best example -- the player who will have to do almost everything right, on both ends of the floor, to keep the Irish in the game.
On offense, that will mean a healthy dose of 3s when -- OK, if -- Grant and Jackson can get to the heart of Kentucky's defense and get the Wildcats scrambling in rotations. On defense, that will mean being a 6-foot-5 forward who boxes out and clears one of four 7-foot lottery picks on any UK shot.
It's not hard to imagine Notre Dame scoring a bunch of points on the offensive end, but it is hard to imagine the Irish keeping Kentucky off the glass and keeping it from the dunks, lobs and easy putbacks on which they thrive.
If Brey's team pulls it off, it will be because Connaughton -- against all conceivable odds -- found a way.
"You can't go into a game thinking, 'Oh, there's a very difficult chance of us winning this game,'" Connaughton said. "You've got to go in and have full faith that you're going to win."
It's the nation's best offense against the nation's best defense in Cleveland, but with a clear favorite.