CLEVELAND - If this charmed Notre Dame season had a title, it might be "Fifty Shades of Blue." At least, that's the way Irish coach Mike Brey sees it.
Brey understands the enormity of the challenge Notre Dame (32-5) faces against undefeated Kentucky (37-0) in the NCAA Midwest Regional final Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena. But the Irish are as tough as they come after beating Duke and North Carolina on the way to the ACC Tournament title in Greensboro, North Carolina, of all places.
When it was suggested the Irish, who have an 8-1 record against this year's Sweet 16 teams compared to Kentucky's 4-0 mark, might be more battle-tested, Brey agreed. "I think we are," Brey said Friday. "No question about it. To go through Duke and North Carolina on Friday and Saturday night -- the atmosphere will be the same because it was all Duke blue and Carolina blue in Greensboro, and I know it will be whatever shade of blue [Kentucky] is tomorrow -- I think that has really helped us.
"I loved in Greensboro how we just absorbed it and played fearlessly in it, and we're going to have to do that tomorrow against a great team."
Not that it helps his current team, but Brey has been part of a historic upset. He was an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski in 1991 when Duke beat undefeated defending national champion UNLV in the national semifinals.
"I didn't share any of that with our guys, but that's a good comparison," Brey said. "Nobody was giving us much of a shot. Maybe this is a similar setup. I've tried not to compare it to other things. This group has cut their own path. I want us to be loose in attacking just like we have been in the postseason."
Easier said than done, as West Virginia found in its devastating 78-39 loss to the Wildcats in Thursday's Sweet 16 game. The Mountaineers came in with high hopes for their pressing defense and were shell-shocked in the opening minutes against Kentucky's overwhelming defensive presence.
But Notre Dame is nearly as good at the offensive end of the floor, as the Irish showed in their 81-70 victory over Wichita State. The Shockers came away shaking their heads about the Irish passing, pick-and-roll game and long-range shooting.
"I sure hope we can get into a flow," Brey said. "It's going to be harder for us to flow. We're the most efficient offensive team in the country. They're the best defensive team in the country. I think it's exciting to see how this thing plays out over 40 minutes."
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said Notre Dame is equipped to challenge Kentucky because it can spread the floor with players such as Demetrious Jackson, Pat Connaughton, Steve Vasturia and Jerian Grant, who all can shoot from three and yet also go inside to the basket, and 6-10 post man Zach Auguste can compete with Kentucky's big men.
Wildcats coach John Calipari said of the Irish: "They score in bunches. They can score at the rim, layups, post-ups. They can score on breakdowns. What I've seen in the last five games is they're really defending. They're playing more physical, tougher, their rotations are tighter, and I think that's why they've gone on this run."
Getting to the rim against a lineup of Kentucky bigs that includes 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns, 7-foot Dakari Johnson and 6-10 Trey Lyles undoubtedly will alter Notre Dame's offense, maybe force the Irish to rely even more heavily on three-point shooting.
But Brey said: "We were 4-1 against Duke and Carolina this year. If that doesn't get you ready for playing these dudes tomorrow, I don't know what does."