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March 22, 2013

Is ND done with one-and-done?

DAYTON, Ohio - Some hear it, some don’t. All of them know it’s there, like the conspicuous gorilla in the corner of the room.

NCAA tournament victories at Notre Dame are hard to come by. There have been just two in the last nine seasons, and a mere one for a senior class that is the first at Notre Dame in 23 years to go to four straight NCAA tournaments.

To say the Irish are desperate for an NCAA tournament run, which would lead them to Los Angeles next weekend in the West Regional, is an understatement.

“I am a little tired of hearing it, but it’s our job to go and prove people wrong,” said junior point guard Eric Atkins. “It’s on us to go out there and change people’s minds. I’m excited to get out there and play.”

Three seasons ago, when Jack Cooley and Tom Knight were freshmen, the Irish lost, 51-50, to Old Dominion in New Orleans. Two seasons ago, as the No. 2 seed in Chicago, Notre Dame struggled past Akron in the opening round before getting whipped by 10-seed Florida State.

Last year in Greensboro, N.C., the Irish shot 51 percent from the field, made 9-of-21 three-pointers, and had 19 assists, but still lost to Xavier, 67-63.

Three years, one win, three losses, no Sweet 16 appearances.

“I’d love to make it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament,” said Knight, the 6-foot-10 senior who has become an integral part of Notre Dame’s surge down the stretch. “We haven’t done that since I’ve been here, and it’s something we all want to do. It’s definitely a focus of ours. It starts with Iowa State.”

“This team has been through so many ridiculous scenarios,” said Cooley, Notre Dame’s seventh first-team all-Big East selection in the last 11 years. “Losing guys, long games, playing in a tough conference…I think it finally has come together for us.

“We know we’re a good team and we’ve gotten some really tough draws lately. Two years ago, we were a two seed and we ran into Florida State, and the only reason they were a 10 seed was because their best player got hurt. Last year was ridiculous with what happened at the end of the game.”

Atkins hit the free throw that would have tied the game with 2.8 seconds remaining against Xavier last year, only to have it waved off when referee Michael Stuart whistled Jerian Grant for a lane violation coming from above the circle. Not only was Atkins’ first free throw nullified, but the second attempt was denied.

Bye, bye, NCAA tournament.

“As a program, we haven’t had the success in the NCAA tournament that we’ve had during the regular season,” said sophomore Pat Connaughton. “That’s something that this team takes personally because of last year’s first-round loss. We want to change it. We want to see what we can do this year.”

When the NCAA tournament pairings were announced Sunday, Atkins called Notre Dame’s second-round game against Iowa State “a one-game championship.” His backcourt running mate, Grant, agrees.

“When you lose, you go home,” Grant said. “This is a championship game, and if we win it, we move on to the next one. We know that we haven’t been to the second round or the Sweet 16 in a long time. But nobody really thinks about it or talks about it because every year, it’s a new team. We’re not thinking about the past.”

While the Irish roster is virtually devoid of post-season tournament success, Michigan State transfer Garrick Sherman has a bit of history to tap into. As a freshman in 2010, he played eight minutes and scored four points in the Final Four against Butler.

“I’ve shared a little bit,” said Sherman of his NCAA tournament experience. “The focus and intensity goes up a lot. You have to be ready every play. There’s no taking a play off. There’s no more ‘my bad’ mistakes where you say you’ll get it next time.

“You have to focus and take care of it now, and I’ve tried to make that point clear. I talked to everybody earlier in the week about a new level of focus. There is no room for errors right now. You have to be on top of your game as soon as it’s tipped.”

Notre Dame will have its hands full getting past Iowa State, which leads the nation in three-pointers and three-point attempts. But the Irish are confident that this is their year>

“I think we have a good chance this year with the maturity our team,” said a confident Cooley. “It’s good to see we finally got this good draw.”

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