CLEVELAND -- The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are flying to the Elite Eight. The Wichita State Shockers are ending their third straight trip to the NCAA tournament after another brilliant season under coach Gregg Marshall. Here are five observations from Thursday night's 81-70 Irish win:
Yes, the Irish's offense is really that good. Notre Dame's vaunted attack, which has buoyed it all season, was on immediate, impressive display Thursday night. The Irish started the game 8-of-10 from the field and 3-of-4 from the 3-point line. They not only utilized their spacing and shooting but also used the threat therein to get easy buckets off cuts and slips -- like Zach Auguste's open dunk off a nifty Jerian Grant dummy at 15:31. That was Grant's fourth assist of the night already, and the Shockers -- and Marshall -- looked helpless against the onslaught. This would be a theme. After a hard-nosed, grinding first-half comeback to cut ND's halftime lead to 3, and a second-half surge that gave Wichita State its first lead of the game, the Irish went on an absolute second-half blitz. Grant and Demetrius Jackson carved up the overplaying Shockers, finding open shooters (or themselves). Grant was especially crafty passing out of traps to the Irish's typically well-spaced collection of offensive threats. If the concern entering the tournament was that the Irish couldn't defend or rebound well enough to weather bad shooting efforts, wins over Northeastern and Butler should have assuaged that. Thursday night was a different kind of win. By pouring in 1.19 points per trip on the best per-possession defense in a league that also included Northern Iowa, the Irish served up a simple reminder: When you score like this, nothing else matters.
Jackson may be Notre Dame's most important player. It's hard to argue with the chameleonic versatility of Pat Connaughton, or Auguste's sheer necessity. Few would question the notion that potential All-American Grant is the Irish's best player. But Jackson is often just as crucial -- he is easily the Irish's most athletic player, and few defenders anywhere can match his mix of spitfire quickness and leaping ability. He's also important in ways that are less obvious. For example, his ability to break defenders down off the dribble often takes the onus off Grant to do the same. This provides Grant the chance to charge forward against scrambling, recovering defensive looks he'd never see if Jackson didn't send that defense scrambling in the first place. And when Grant gets into space, look out.
Grant's scoring game wasn't as impressive as his passing Thursday. He made big shots, naturally, but he was especially brilliant as a facilitator, both early and in Notre Dame's nonstop second-half scoring party. He finished with 11 assists, and several of them were silly: a one-handed touch-dump pass to a cutting Auguste; a one-handed, 20-foot whip to Auguste out of a trap; and a left-handed scoop just over the top of his defenders' heads, perfectly placed to Connaughton, who promptly buried a wide-open 3.
Wichita State's Marshall may have coined "Play Angry" as a program catchphrase in the 2012-13 Final Four run, but the Shockers exude toughness and togetherness above all else. They never feel truly out of a game, at least until time makes a comeback impossible. Thursday's first-half return was less of a roar than a gradual growl, but it was effective all the same. Much of the work was done on the defensive end, where Wichita State tightened up on shooters and scrapped for rebounds. The Irish would miss their final seven 3s; they would finish the half just 3-of-11 from 3, and 12-of-30 overall. Meanwhile, Ron Baker buried a pair of 3s, Fred VanVleet began a relentless series of pushes into the lane, and Darius Carter fed on the Irish's thin defensive interior. By the half, Notre Dame's lead had withered to 3. This attitude was on display late, when the game was clearly out of reach -- Wichita State kept battling and Marshall kept coaching, occasionally even smiling as his team fought nobly, and hopelessly, to the finish.
It will be fascinating to see where both teams go from here. For Notre Dame, this is already coach Mike Brey's deepest NCAA tournament run in his career, with a Final Four bid on the line Saturday against either West Virginia (which presses like crazy) or Kentucky (which is obscenely good). For Wichita State, it means replacing valuable seniors Tekele Cotton and Carter, hoping Baker (who seems unlikely to want to end his college career on this individual and collective down note) returns, and nurturing another wave of role players alongside VanVleet -- the best pure point guard in the country, period.