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March 17, 2009Call it a way to save face.
The National Invitation Tournament, once the more prestigious of the two post-season gatherings, has lost its luster compared to the NCAA tournament.
But the Fighting Irish (18-14)-a No. 2 seed in the 32-team tournament-have as many as five more games to be played if they can start living up to the potential that faded as the degree of difficulty in the Big East increased.
For Notre Dame, this game is about pride and keeping the season alive. The Irish fell behind early against West Virginia in the second round of the Big East tournament, and although they made a bit of a run, never seriously contended for the victory.
Now the Irish are back on their home court-heretofore known as the "old Joyce Center"-where post-season renovations will give the Irish brand new digs for the 2009-10 season. Once the place where Notre Dame strung together an impressive 45 straight victories, the house that Austin Carr built deserves a grand finale.
In Alabama-Birmingham-a No. 7 seed with a 22-11 record-the Irish are facing another senior-laden team. The third-place finisher in Conference USA behind Memphis and Tulsa, the Blazers are coached by former Indiana University head coach Mike Davis.
Alabama-Birmingham has just six scholarship players remaining following a mass exodus from the team before and during the 2008-09 season. After losing Jeremy Mayfield and Ed Berrios to academics, Terrence Roderick and Armon Bassett left school in December.
Yet Davis kept his team together, finished 11-5 in Conference USA play, and fought to the semifinals of the conference post-season tournament before falling to Tulsa.
The Blazers offer a point of reference since they played three Big East teams and several NCAA tournament teams. Against the Big East, UAB was 1-2, defeating South Florida (78-77) at home while losing at Cincinnati (87-80) and at Louisville (82-62).
In mid-November, the Blazers won at Arizona (72-71). They also lost to Oklahoma (77-67 and Boston College (83-77) in late November.
Like the rest of the teams in Conference USA, Alabama-Birmingham couldn't get past the powerful Memphis Tigers. The Blazers lost by 13 (81-68) and 11 (71-60) in their two encounters. UAB also lost to second-place Tulsa twice by one (75-74) during the regular season and three (70-67) in the Conference USA tournament.
Robert Vaden, who joined Davis from Indiana University when Davis was fired, leads the Blazers. Vaden, a 6-foot-5 senior, has attempted more than 300 three-pointers, connecting on 106, to lead the squad in scoring with a 17.5 average. He has made less than 40 percent of his shots from the field, but is a solid .341 from beyond the arc. No other Blazer has made more than 44 three-pointers.
Six-foot-two senior Paul Delaney III is UAB's most complete player with a 16.0 scoring average, 4.4 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.1 steals per game. Delaney III is shooting .560 from the field and .788 from the line, where he has made 145 free throws.
Six-foot-eight Lawrence Kinnard (14.2 ppg., 9.0 rpg.) is the third senior to average in double figures and Notre Dame's greatest challenge on the backboards Tuesday night. Kinnard has grabbed 81 offensive rebounds, but can be a liability at the free-throw line (.602).
The fourth senior starter is 6-foot-5 Channing Toney, who averages 8.9 points per game and shoots at a .807 clip from the charity stripe. Only two other scholarship players contribute: 6-foot-8 junior Howard Crawford (8.0 ppg., 3.4 rpg., .528 FG %) and 5-foot-8 sophomore [d/b]Aaron Johnson[/db] (3.7 ppg., 3.6 apg.).
Walk-ons Cameron Moore and Mike Davis Jr., the son of the head coach, will chip in off the bench.
In terms of style of play and athleticism, some have compared UAB to teams such as Marquette and Seton Hall from the Big East, which means the Irish will have their hands full against the Blazers.
There's too much pride in the senior class of Kyle McAlarney, Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller to tank it as the Irish did in a first-round NIT loss to Holy Cross four years ago. But UAB offers enough athleticism to make this an entertaining prelude for fans filling out their NCAA brackets.
For the team that played all four NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds-finishing 1-5 with the lone victory at home against Louisville-the Irish just may have one good run left in them.
Pointspread: Notre Dame by 5 ?
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 78, Alabama-Birmingham 71
Season record: 23-9 straight up; 9-16 vs. points
Editor's note: Tip-off Tuesday night is 9 p.m. EDT. The winner plays the winner of No. 3 seed New Mexico (21-11) and No. 6 seed Nebraska (18-12).
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