No sooner had St. Patrick’s Day arrived in Dayton, Ohio, and the Eastern time zone than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish secured an electrifying double-overtime win over Rutgers in the First Four that now pits them against the Alabama Crimson Tide in San Diego. Notre Dame’s win was its first since 2016 and first-ever as a double-digit seed since the NCAA Tournament in 1979 switched from distinguishing seeds between automatic qualifiers and at-large bids to numerical seeds.
Alabama, meanwhile, arrives after a regular season and conference tournament schedule that ranked among the toughest nationally. The Crimson Tide squared off against fellow NCAA Tournament selections in 16 of their 32 games entering the tournament, posting a 9-7 record in those matchups.
Both of these programs will take the court on Friday afternoon with squarely even historical NCAA Tournament records. Notre Dame’s First Four win on Wednesday night moved the Fighting Irish to 40-40 all-time in the Big Dance, while Alabama is 21-21 in its — interestingly — 21 previous tournament berths. The Fighting Irish are 9-3 since the start of February whereas the Crimson Tide find themselves 5-6 in that span, losing each of their last three games by single digits. This is a common theme for Alabama, considering 10 of its 13 losses this season have come by fewer than 10 points.
These teams first met in 1955, an 86-80 Notre Dame win in New Orleans. Three of the squads’ five matchups have been at neutral sites, with the Tide victorious in the other two neutral-site meetings (2001 in New Orleans, 2015 in Orlando) while the Irish claimed both legs of the home-and-home series in 2005 (Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa) and 2006 (Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame).
West Region: No. 11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (23-10) vs. No. 6 Alabama Crimson Tide (19-13)
Time: 4:15 p.m. ET (Friday, March 18)
Where: Viejas Arena (San Diego)
Spread: Alabama -4
Keys for Notre Dame
The outcomes of many of Notre Dame’s contests this season have been defined largely from the 3-point line, as the Irish are 14-1 when making at least 10 of their looks from deep but 9-9 when connecting on nine or fewer. The win over Rutgers marked the ninth of those wins with fewer than 10 made 3-pointers, as Notre Dame went 6-for-19 from distance on Wednesday. That’ll be a vital factor in keeping pace with Alabama, who leads the SEC with 963 3-pointers attempted and 297 made, ranking fifth and 29th in the country, respectively.
The experience of Notre Dame’s roster also is an underappreciated perk of this year’s group, as the Fighting Irish returned the most career starts, minutes played, field goals, field goals attempted, 3-point field goals, 3-point field goals attempted, free throws, free throws attempted, defensive rebounds, total rebounds, assists and points of any team in the Mike Brey era. And on Wednesday, two of those veteran leaders — Cormac Ryan (46) and Prentiss Hubb (44) — tallied the highest and third-highest minute total of any Notre Dame player in the NCAA Tournament with Brey at the helm.
Hubb dished out seven assists in those 44 minutes — his third-highest assist total of the season — and notably posted his first game in a month without a turnover. Graduate student Paul Atkinson Jr. led all scorers in the win with 26 points on 13-of-15 shooting, including the game-clinching putback with 1.4 seconds remaining in double overtime. The experience of that senior/graduate student trio in the starting lineup alongside fellow senior Dane Goodwin will be key alongside the dynamic playmaking ability of freshman guard Blake Wesley, who will aim to rebound from his eight-point game against Rutgers that marked just his sixth single-digit scoring output of the season.
Keys for Alabama
In tandem with their propensity to shoot from distance, the Crimson Tide are virtually unstoppable in many other facets of their offense, especially with scoring and rebounding after the shots on which they don’t score. Alabama enters the NCAA Tournament leading the SEC and ranking ninth in the NCAA with 80 points per game, though the Tide have eclipsed the 80-point mark just five times in 11 games since the start of February (5-6 in that span). One of the promising pieces to that, though, is that Alabama’s two leading scorers — junior guards Jalen Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly — combine for just 31 points per game, a sign that the Tide’s production on offense is certainly balanced and not reliant on one single player.
And on the shots when the Tide aren’t able to put the ball in the basket, Alabama still sits sixth nationally with more than 13.5 offensive rebounds per game. That represents a sizable chunk of its 39.97 total rebounds per game, the highest among SEC teams still in the NCAA Tournament after Kentucky’s (40.24 rpg) loss to Saint Peter’s on Thursday night in a dramatic 15-over-2 upset.
Going back to the note about the Tide’s relentless onslaught from 3-point range, junior guard Jalen Shackelford leads the SEC and is among the top 20 nationally with 3.1 made 3-pointers per game. And similar to the impact players for Notre Dame, Shackelford will be seen plenty throughout the afternoon as he averages 33 minutes and 59 seconds played per game, narrowly trailing Mississippi State’s Iverson Molinar (34:05) for the conference lead.
Though the Crimson Tide have been quite prolific on offense throughout the season, their defense has struggled as of late, allowing 13 of their last 18 opponents to score at least 75 points — winning just four of those 13 — en route to an average of 76.4 points allowed per game that ranks 13th in the SEC. With Notre Dame posting an 11-1 record this season when scoring at least 75 points, the Fighting Irish will take plenty of momentum on its journey to San Diego in an effort to take down the Tide in another neutral-site showdown.
Prediction: Notre Dame 79, Alabama 73
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.