How they got here: Last time we saw Notre Dame in the tournament, the Irish, who struggled to earn a tourney bid in 2010, were bowing out thanks to an ugly, uninspired first-round loss to Old Dominion. Twelve months later, and after the graduation of four-year star Luke Harangody, the Irish are a whole different animal. In that time, guard Ben Hansbrough has rocketed from “good but not great” to the Big East player of the year. That surprising rise has dovetailed with this unheralded team's race to a second-place finish in the rough-and-tumble Big East this season.
Meanwhile, the Zips’ appearance in the NCAA tournament can be chalked up to survivalist instincts. Akron nearly lost in the first round of the MAC tournament; it had to fend off a 20-point comeback by Miami (Ohio) to take a double-overtime win on March 8. Three wins and one more overtime later, and Akron was sitting atop the MAC and headed to the tournament for the third time in school history.
Players to watch: How do you know you’re having a great year? When you -- and not Connecticut’s Kemba Walker -- are the only unanimous all-Big East first team selection, not to mention the Big East player of the year. But there are few who would argue Hansbrough didn’t deserve those honors. He’s been brilliant for Notre Dame, not only in a scorer’s role but in his ability to facilitate the uber-efficient perimeter offense that carried the Irish throughout their impressive Big East run. Forwards Tim Abromaitis and Carleton Scott are keys; when Scott is hitting outside shots, the Irish are almost impossible to guard.
What to look for: Can Akron find a way to keep Notre Dame from running away on offense? The Irish are deadly from the perimeter and willing to play at Mike Brey’s sloth-like “burn” pace; that negates the typical underdog strategy of slowing the game, packing the defense and hoping the big bad favorite goes cold. The Zips are a decent defensive team on the perimeter -- they held opponents to a 46.6 effective field goal shooting percentage this season -- but let’s be real: it will require a Herculean effort to keep the Irish from casually rolling in the Chicago opener Friday.
Quotable: “Most likely, if we play Notre Dame seven times, they would probably win the series, but we only have to win one game. And that's the beauty of sports. We have to play one great game. They have to be average, or we have to be good, and they have to be below average.” -- Akron coach Keith Dambrot
How they got here: Somehow, it seems Mark Turgeon always finds a way. The Texas A&M coach faced a serious challenge in the offseason: Replacing three seniors, including stars Donald Sloan and Bryan Davis, with a group of unproven unknowns. The Aggies didn’t miss a beat. Instead, A&M quickly established itself as another smart, solid Turgeon team, one that looked like it might compete for a spot among the Big 12’s elite before a late-January hiccup. Meanwhile, despite losing its leading scorer and best defender in forward Chris Singleton to a broken hand on Feb. 19, Florida State admirably maintained its spot above the bubble fray.
Players to watch: Singleton hasn’t seen action since his injury, but he practiced Thursday and appears likely to play Friday. Saying this is “huge” for the Seminoles is like saying water is “huge” for human survival. With Singleton on the prowl, an already-stout Florida State defense is one of the toughest, most disruptive units in the country. Texas A&M forward Khris Middleton will have to find a way to remain productive despite Singleton’s singular defensive prowess, and A&M will need to balance its interior scoring with some timely perimeter shooting from guard B.J. Holmes.
What to look for: A slow, defensive slugfest that will be decided on the offensive boards. FSU's defense is the second-stingiest in the nation; only Texas has allowed opponents fewer points per possession in 2011. That stinginess stems from Florida State’s excellent first-shot defense. The Seminoles simply don’t allow good looks. That said, Leonard Hamilton’s offense-averse team does allow opponents its share of offensive rebounds, and A&M ranks among the top 15 teams in the nation in retrieving their own misses. The Aggies aren’t going to get many good looks. But if they can take advantage of the offensive glass and get a few easy putbacks, they’ll be at a major advantage against a Florida State team that frequently struggles to score.
Quotable: “How big of a factor he's going to be will be in direct proportion to how he's going to adjust to not being available for a month, not being in practice, not having any contact, not being in rhythm. [...] He's only been in any type of contact with us now for four or five days. So to be honest with you, I think that's yet to be determined.” -- Florida State coach Hamilton on what he expects -- or doesn’t expect from Singleton.