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March 15, 2006

NIT not child's play for Irish, Commodores

Tonight, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt face off in their respective National Invitational Tournament opener. In many ways, both teams will feel as though they are looking in the mirror.

On the Obvious Scale, ND and VU are nationally-prominent private institutions that usually compete with big state schools that have significantly lower academic aspirations. But more importantly, these are two teams that were just a few down-the-stretch plays away from being included in the Field of 65.

Notre Dame (15-13) competes in the retooled and expanded 16-team Big East Conference. The conference placed a record eight teams in the NCAA Tournament this year, including #1 seeds Villanova and UConn.

Though disapppointed to have not qualified for the Big Dance, Notre Dame likely feels fortunate to be dancing at all. The Irish lost seven of their first eight conference games by a grand total of 27 points -- and three of them in overtime to Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Louisville. Notre Dame rallied at mid-season to win five of their last seven regular season games before falling to Georgetown in their Big East Conference Tournament opener.

Vanderbilt, on the other hand, had South Carolina and Georgia in the grave -- and at Memorial Gym, no less -- only to allow both to leap to life and snatch victory from defeat. The Commodores also had Alabama down by two with three seconds remaining, only to see the Tide turn the tables for a 77-74 overtime win.

No doubt those three games would have been the difference between the Big versus the Little Dance for the 'Dores.

But the reality is, VU has been teetering on the brink all season long. While the Commodores may well have been three winnable games away from making the NCAA Tournament, they were also two plays away from not even making the NIT. Had Mario Moore not drained a 30-foot buzzer beater against Oregon, or Derrick Byars not made an improbable (and ill-advised) last minute leaner against Kentucky, VU would be joining Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn in front of the television tonight.

Seven years ago, Kevin Stallings' infamously gave his team a public pass for not showing up for their NIT opener against Wake Forest, saying he couldn't blame them for not wanting to play in the Not Invited Tournament. This year, Stallings has stated flatly that they should embrace the opportunity to extend a season that has been filled with off-court controversy and a revolving starting lineup.

On the court, both teams depend on outside shooting for the majority of their points. Vanderbilt averages over eight 3-pointers made per game -- whereas Notre Dame averages more than 10. Vanderbilt has been among the SEC's leaders in field goal percentage all season long, hitting 46% from the field. But the Irish average 45%, including 40% from three -- a half percentage point higher than the Commodores.

But Notre Dame would appear to have a statistical edge overall. ND plays a more uptempo game, averaging 76 points per game to VU's 70. The Irish have actually topped 90 points four times this season, all in conference play. And despite their remarkable shooting percentages, on average the Irish have out-rebounded their opponents 41-39. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, has actually been out-rebounded for the season 34 to 32. And don't forget, the Irish have had to bang in the Big East, which carries a well-deserved reputation for physical "let them play" ball.

Torin Francis, who was recruited by Vandy out of high school, averages 9.4 rebounds per game, and will become the first player in Notre Dame history to lead his team in rebounding for four straight years. He's had seven double-doubles, and has had 10 games where has has pulled down 10 or more boards.

On the other side, Vanderbilt's Julian Terrell will finish the season ranked among the top rebounders in the SEC. And sophomore DeMarre Carroll, though dropping off of late, has provided an unexpected frontcourt boost on the boards for VU. If you are looking for key match-ups for tonight, look no further than Francis v. Terrell and Carroll.

On the outside, Notre Dame's Chris Quinn is capable of scorching the nets. Quinn netted 34 points against Seton Hall on February 18, which was his fourth 30-point performance of the season. When Quinn and Francis are on, the Irish have an inside-out game that few can match.

Where is Vanderbilt's head?
Whereas Notre Dame understandably feels fortunate to be in the NIT, it's harder to figure out the mental state of the Commodores. While Stallings has openly embraced an NIT bid, his team appeared emotionally drained in this past weekend's SEC Tournament. It took a late-game gut-check performance to pull out a win over hapless Auburn on Thursday. In Friday's follow-up, Louisiana State dominated the Commodores in a way no one had this season.

During a timeout midway through the Auburn game, Stallings could be heard all the way to press row verbally blasting junior guard Derrick Byars for his lack of intensity. In the post game press conference, Stallings claimed his method worked, as Byars hit a 3-pointer just before the half. But Byars' body language in the post-game press conference showed a player that was exhausted and spent, despite the fact that he has been VU's most consistent player on both ends of the court.

In the LSU follow-up, Glen Davis -- the league's only unanimous selection to the All-SEC first team -- had a double-double on the 'Dores before halftime. LSU uncerimoniously disposed of the Commodores without even playing the SEC's Freshman of the Year, Tyrus Thomas. Stallings was awarded a technical foul for "unsportsmanlike conduct" when he walked to center court to challenge an official as the halftime horn sounded.

Despite the soap opera that has been the Mario Moore saga, the Commodores have continued to play hard even though they have often been out-matched in the paint. Credit junior co-captain shooting guard Dan Cage, who has become increasingly more vocal on and off the court, for a good portion of that energy. Cage seems to have finally embraced a leadership role on a team that has struggled to find a go-to instinct all year long.

Ironically, the one player who has provided an emotional boost has been Alan Metcalfe, a player Stallings said just two weeks ago on his coach's call-in show wouldn't even see the court unless a regular got into serious foul trouble. With the untimely departure of redshirt freshman post Davis Nwankwo and the de facto benching of redshirt junior center Ted Skuchas, it's Metcalfe who will likely receive the lion's share of playing time tonight.

Notre Dame certainly is not LSU, and the Irish fell twice to a Georgetown team Vandy beat back in November. But if tonight's game becomes a contest between Metcalfe and Francis, turn out the lights on the 'Dores. Notre Dame can more than match Vanderbilt from outside, and if they can win the battle inside, it will likely be the Irish who face the winner of the Michigan-UTEP game this weekend in Ann Arbor.

Starting lineups

3 - Alex Gordon, G, 5-11, 165, So., Pensacola, Fla. (5.6 ppg, 2.6 apg)
- SEC Tournament: 7.0 ppg; 50.0 3FG%, 10 assists, 4 turnovers.

32 - Shan Foster, G/F, 6-6, 200, So., Kenner, La. (16.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg)
- Named First Team All-SEC by league's coaches.

4 - Derrick Byars, G/F, 6-7, 223, Jr.-Tr., Memphis, Tenn. (12.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.2 apg)
- SEC Tournament: Team-high 19.0 ppg, 13-23 FGs (56.5%); 10-16 3FGs (62.5%).

22 - DeMarre Carroll, F, 6-7, 214, So., Birmingham, Ala. (10.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg)
- Posted 4th double-double of season (10 pts and 11 rebs) vs. Tennessee (3/4).

33 - Julian Terrell, F, 6-9, 248, Sr., Nashville, Tenn. (10.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg)
- Ranked fifth (7.5 rpg) in the SEC in rebounding during the regular season.

2 - Chris Quinn, G, 6-2, 185, Sr., Dublin, Ohio (17.8 ppg, 6.3 apg, 3.8 rpg)
- Averaged 20.6 points during conference play.

15 - Colin Falls, G, 6-5, 204, Jr., Park Ridge, Ill. (13.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg)
- Scored 21 points with six 3-pointers vs. Georgetown in Big East Tournament.

43 - Russell Carter, G, 6-4, 223, Jr., Paulsboro, N.J. (11.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
- Averaging 18.8 ppg over the last four games.

31 - Rob Kurz, F, 6-9, 238, So., Lower Gwynedd, Pa. (6.2 ppg, 5.0 rpg)
- Posted 11 points and 11 rebounds vs. Georgetown in Big East Tournament.

34 - Torin Francis, C, 6-11, 252, Sr., Boston, Mass. (11.1 ppg, 9.4 rpg)
- Has started all 111 games at ND; 30 career double-doubles.

Brey connections
Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey interviewed for the Vanderbilt head coaching job before bowing out of the process late. Brey was then the head coach at Deleware. It was widely suspected that Brey was ready to accept the job before his former boss Mike Krzyzewski at Duke advised him otherwise.

Stallings, then the head coach at Illinois State, accepted the job shortly thereafter.

During Brey's tenure at Notre Dame, he is 117-69 (63%). Stallings is 122-95 since coming to Vanderbilt (56%).

The new NIT
The NIT, which was once the premiere post-season college basketball tournament, fell on increasingly harder times over the years. As the NCAA Tournament expanded to eventually feature 64 teams, the NIT became the tournament of the cast-offs. In the offseason, facing increasing financial pressures, the NIT was sold to the NCAA.

The NCAA promptly made sweeping changes to how the NIT selects and matches up teams for the tournament. First, the 40-team field is now seeded from one to 40, and like the NCAA Tournament, a bracket is drawn up in advance to determine who plays whom as the tournament field is winnowed. The top 24 seeds get first round byes, and the remaining 16 teams play eight "play-in" games.

In addition, higher seeds always host their game. No longer under the financial hammer of ticket sales, the NIT now rewards higher seeds with home games. This year, #4-seed Vanderbilt was forced to play at #5-seed Notre Dame tonight because the NCAA women's tournament is being played at Memorial Gym this weekend.

Another big change this year has been the NIT's first automatic bids. If your team won its conference's regular season championship, but wasn't invited to the NCAA, they automatically receive a place in the NIT. Crosstown David Lipscomb received a bid this year under those rules, having won the regular season A-Sun championship, but falling to Belmont in their post-season conference tournament.

Been here, done this
Vanderbilt was in the NIT last season as well. The Commodores opened the tournament with a live, nationally-televised ESPN game with Indiana. The Commodores defeated IU in Bloomington.

VU faced Wichita State in the second round at Memorial Gym. The game ended in one of the most magical Memorial moments, when Jason Holwerda passed the ball the length of the court to Corey Smith with .8 seconds remaing, sinking a winning lay-up as the final buzzer sounded.

Vanderbilt fell to Memphis in the NIT's quarterfinals. The game was played at the FedEx Forum, Memphis' home court. Memphis won both the C-USA regular season and conference tournament championship this year, and received one of four #1 seeds in this year's NCAA Tournament.

Media and ticket info
Tonight's game will be televised live from South Bend, Ind., on ESPN. Tip-off is 6:00 CST. Fans can order tickets by phone at 574-631-7356 or online at www.und.com. Tickets are $28 (loge), $22 (lower arena), and $12 (bleacher).

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