NIT Central: Kentucky at Notre Dame Quarterfinals Preview

March 24, 2009

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Eric Lindsey, UKAA Media Relations

Rewind to five months ago.

Kentucky Logo   Notre Dame logo

ESPN2 - Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes

Big Blue Sports Network - Tom Leach and Mike Pratt

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Cat Scratches starting around 6:30 p.m.

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Notre Dame was a preseason top-10 team and one of the favorites to win the Big East. Its star player, forward Luke Harangody, was a consensus Big East Player of the Year candidate and widely regarded as one of the top players in the nation.

Kentucky wasn't supposed to compete for a national championship, but after 17 straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, another visit to the Big Dance seemed like a formality.

If somebody overslept the regular season, one might think Wednesday's matchup at 7 p.m. on ESPN2 is a Sweet 16 showdown.

Well, not quite.

While the season never panned out that way, the stakes will be fairly high Wednesday night at the Joyce Center in South Bend, Ind., in the quarterfinals of the National Invitation Tournament. The winner will not only be one step closer to an NIT championship, it'll be headed to the hallowed Madison Square Garden in New York City.

UK (22-13) escaped the second round with a thrilling 65-63 victory over Creighton in front of a raucous crowd in Omaha, Neb., on Monday. Despite speculation and rumors about UK Coach Billy Gillispie's head coaching future at UK, the Wildcats put together one of their grittiest performances of the year. UK trailed most of the game, but Jodie Meeks converted a three-point play in the lane with 10.6 second left to lift UK.

Meeks might have struggled with his shot for most of the game, but he lived up to his billing in the final nine and a half minutes by scoring 11 points. His scoring partner, sophomore Patrick Patterson, tallied 12 points in the win, becoming the 10th fastest player in UK history to reach the 1,000-point plateau.

As quick as Patterson reached the elite scoring mark, he might meet his match when he squares off with the 6-foot-8 Harangody.

What Harangody lacks in athleticism he makes up for with brutal strength. Pound for pound one of the best scorers in the game, Harangody enters Wednesday averaging 23.9 points and 11.9 rebounds per game for the Fighting Irish (20-14).

Had it not been for Notre Dame's midseason slip-up – the Irish lost seven straight Big East games – Harangody would likely still be a Player of the Year candidate and the Irish could be dancing in the NCAA Tournament.

But spare the ifs, ands or buts for both teams. They're over their disappointing regular seasons and ready to rectify the situation.

With an NIT championship – which would be UK's third all-time – and a trip to New York City within reach for both teams, there is no need in looking back. Both teams have already moved forward.

Wednesday's game could also serve as a chance for the Southeastern Conference to gain back a little national respect. The Big East has been flexing its muscles in the NCAA Tournament, placing five teams in the Sweet 16 for the first time in tourney history.

Meanwhile, the SEC failed to get a team past the second round in the Big Dance. With a win over Notre Dame, who UK is 41-17 against all-time, the Wildcats could do a lot to not only restore the SEC's national reputation but its own as well.

Head Coach Billy Gillispie

On Notre Dame…
“They’re an outstanding team. I think somebody said they’ve played all four number one seeds in the NCAA Tournament, six games against the number one seeds. You look at their record and say, ‘Wow, they’ve lost 14 games.’ Then you start looking at the teams they’ve lost to and they’re all great teams. They’re a fantastic team, a very well coached team with one of the very best players in college basketball. They do a good job of surrounding (Luke) Harangody. They’re a sound defensive team and they’ve got home-court advantage.”

On Luke Harangody …
“He’s as good of a low post player as we’ve seen all year and as good of a low post player as I’ve seen in a long time. They surround him with four guys that can really shoot the basketball, so it makes it hard to help on him.”

On the quick turnaround between games …
“We’re looking forward to playing another game. We had a great win against Creighton on the road. It was a hard fought victory. It is a short turnaround, but our guys will be ready to play, it should be a lot of fun. When you talk about Notre Dame, whether you talk about football, basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, whatever, it’s one of the most traditionally renowned schools. It’s a school with a tremendous tradition and a great deal of exposure. They have a great basketball program and we look forward to coming in and playing them.”