This is probably not something that gets said very often in college sports: Notre Dame wants what Wichita State has.
Notre Dame is a college athletics powerhouse, primarily due to the football program, though the men’s basketball program is no slouch. Wichita State doesn’t even have a football team.
Despite its lower seeding and place in the Missouri Valley Conference, Wichita State has been the better basketball program in the last three years. The Shockers have been to a Final Four, they went 35-1 last season and they picked up one of the signature wins in school history — and recent NCAA Tournament history — by defeating Kansas in the round of 32.
Notre Dame is an NCAA Tournament regular under Mike Brey, but this year’s trip to the Sweet 16 is a true rarity. The Irish haven’t been this close to a Final Four since 2003; they haven’t been to an Elite Eight since 1979.
Moreover, the amount of emotional energy spent by both Notre Dame and Wichita State — for different reasons — will be worth watching.
Only after the 67-64 overtime win over Butler did Notre Dame coach Mike Brey reveal to the public and his team that his mother had passed that Saturday morning.
A day later, Wichita State faced Kansas in a long-awaited matchup between the in-state foes in an arena in driving distance from both campuses.
Other Sweet 16 Previews
No. 7 Wichita State vs. No. 3 Notre Dame
Region: Midwest (Cleveland)
Time: Thursday, 7:15 p.m., ET
Announcers: Marv Albert, Chris Webber and Len Elmore
Line: Wichita State by 1
Matchup to Watch: The contest around the rim
Wichita State is a strong defensive team on the ball and at the rim — despite having a smaller lineup. The Shockers rank ninth nationally in field goal defense at 2-point range at 42.1 percent where Notre Dame, with its attacking guards, is No. 1 in the country from 2-point range (58.3 percent). The 6-foot-10 Zach Auguste, the biggest regular for either team, may be the key player. He had 25 points against Northeastern in the round of 64 and seven points in the round of 32 against Butler.
Tournament Surprise: Wichita State’s free throw shooting
The Shockers were an average free throw shooting team during the season, making 68.8 percent from the line on 20 trips per game entering the NCAA Tournament. Last week, Wichita State was 47-of-58 (81 percent). Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker alone were 18-of-20 against Indiana.
Wichita State will win if...
VanVleet and Baker out-duel Jerian Grant. This is going to be a heavyweight backcourt matchup among veterans who can make huge shots in meaningful games. VanVleet should be able to pick apart the Notre Dame defense while Baker probably won’t have another cold shooting night after an off day against the Hoosiers. Even Evan Wessel emerged from out of nowhere to hit 4-of-6 3-pointers against Kansas. Grant can match this group shot for shot.
Notre Dame will win if...
The Irish make a defensive stand. Notre Dame and Wichita State are both in the top 10 in offensive efficiency. The X-factor would seem to be Notre Dame’s ability to defend. Wichita State doesn’t turn the ball over often, and Notre Dame doesn’t force many. Will that trend change or will Notre Dame need to be sturdy in the halfcourt? Pat Connaughton is coming off a five-block, nine-rebound performance against Butler, including the key block to prevent Butler from a potential game-winning shot.
David Fox: Wichita State 78-75
Braden Gall: Notre Dame 78-69
Mitch Light: Notre Dame 78-70
Jake Rose: Notre Dame 72-70