Coming off a thrilling First Four win over Rutgers, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish staved off 6-seed Alabama in the first round and now will meet No. 3 Texas Tech with a trip north along the Pacific coast to San Francisco for the Sweet 16 awaiting the winner. Sunday afternoon will mark just the second-ever meeting between these two programs on the hardwood, the only prior matchup a 25-point Notre Dame win in 1975 when current Texas Tech head coach Mark Adams was a student in Lubbock.
Friday’s wins had plenty of significance on both sides. The Fighting Irish’s 78-64 victory over the Crimson Tide marked the team’s 15th NCAA Tournament victory under head coach Mike Brey, who matched Digger Phelps for the most such wins in program history. The win also pushed Notre Dame above .500 all-time in NCAA Tournament games, moving the program’s overall record to 41-40.
For Texas Tech, meanwhile, following the loss to Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament championship game on March 12, its victory over No. 14 Montana State guaranteed that the Red Raiders would not lose consecutive games all season. Furthermore, the win moved Texas Tech just two games shy of .500 (18-20) in NCAA Tournament action and gives the Red Raiders a chance to clinch their third trip to the Sweet 16 in the last four Tournaments (2018, 2019), the previous ones producing an Elite Eight berth in 2018 and a national runner-up finish in 2019.
West Region: No. 11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (24-10) vs. No. 6 Texas Tech Red Raiders (26-9)
Time: Sunday, March 20 at 4:10 p.m. ET
Where: Viejas Arena (San Diego)
Spread: Texas Tech -7.5
Keys for Notre Dame
As has been the case for the Fighting Irish throughout the season, (success from) distance makes the heart — and stat sheet — grow fonder. Counting its 10-of-16 effort from 3-point land in Friday’s win over Alabama, Notre Dame has now won 15 of its 16 games when making at least 10 treys. Cormac Ryan led all scorers with a career-high 29 points on 10-of-13 shooting — including a career-best 7-of-9 on 3-pointers — as his 29 points set a Brey-era single-game NCAA Tournament scoring record and his seven made 3-pointers set a school record. Ryan has certainly been on fire as of late, scoring at least 10 points in 11 games this season, eight of which have come in his last 10 games. That 3-point consistency has been among the nation’s best this season, as the Irish entered the Tournament among the top 20 nationally in shooting success from downtown.
Ryan is hardly the only Irish player thriving in the month of March, however. Freshman guard Blake Wesley is two minutes away from eclipsing the 1,000-minute threshold after already being named second-team All-ACC and to the All-Rookie team. His 42 minutes played against Rutgers set a career high in the win, paving the way for his game-tying driving layup in the final seconds of the first overtime before a layup that was put back for the game-winning basket by Paul Atkinson Jr. Wesley also chipped in three steals in the double-overtime win, making his versatility very apparent as the first and only true freshman in the country with 450 points, 100 rebounds, 75 assists, 50 made 3-pointers, and 40 steals this season.
Keys for Texas Tech
That prolific scoring will be quite necessary on Sunday against the Red Raiders, whose 97 points against Montana State in the opening round marked the highest-scoring total by a single team on Thursday or Friday. That output is hardly unfamiliar to Texas Tech, as it marked the third game this season scoring at least 90 points, following a 96-40 home win over Omaha in late November and a 94-91 double-overtime loss at then-No. 7 Kansas on Jan. 24. But the Red Raiders will need to channel that momentum more closely than their regular-season scoring average of just under 72 points per game, an output that was barely among the top half of Division I entering March Madness.
One key reliance will be senior — and dual transfer — forward Bryson Williams, in his final season of eligibility after starting his season at Fresno State before transferring to UTEP and then to Texas Tech. Williams entered the NCAA Tournament shooting a Big 12-leading 53.4 percent, and he picked up right where he left off with a team-high-tying 20 points against Montana State. He's now averaging a team-leading 13.9 points per game on the season.
Another factor to watch will be the Red Raiders’ ability to start quickly against the Fighting Irish. Texas Tech is 21-4 when leading at halftime, but just 5-5 when trailing (1-1) or tied (4-4) after 20 minutes. Their defense will be critical as well, as Texas Tech 24-5 when holding opponents to 69 or fewer points vs. is 1-4 when it goes over that mark.
The site of Sunday’s game — San Diego's Viejas Arena — is quite the appropriate name (gender aside, translates to “the old ones”) given the vast experience present on both squads. Texas Tech’s roster of 14 is made up of five returnees, six NCAA Division I transfers, one junior college transfer, a walk-on who joined at midterm, and one high school signee. Five of the 14 Red Raiders — Kevin Obanor, Davion Warren, Williams, Marcus Santos-Silva and Adonis Arms — have played at least 120 career games and four of the five (all but Obanor) are “super seniors” thanks to the extra year of eligibility granted by COVID-19. Notre Dame’s roster features three freshmen but will confer an NCAA men’s basketball-high seven degrees this spring, with six undergraduates — Robby Carmody, Dane Goodwin, Prentiss Hubb, Nate Laszewski, Ryan and Trey Wertz — alongside graduate student Paul Atkinson Jr. wrapping up a master’s degree in finance.
Texas Tech may boast more on-court experience, but Notre Dame will continue to ride its hot hands to pull off the upset and advance to the Sweet 16.
Prediction: Notre Dame 84, Texas Tech 76
— 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.