NEW YORK -- The popular thought is that when you get a second chance against a team that hammered you earlier in the season by 27 points, there are a few things you might want to change. Not so for John MacLeod who, in his first year as coach of Notre Dame, takes the Irish against Virginia for the National Invitation Tournament championship tonight.
When the two teams met earlier this year at Charlottesville, Va., the Cavaliers' eyes popped wide at the man-to-man defense the Irish tried to throw at them. Virginia isn't known as a good shooting team -- averaging 43 percent for the season -- and its opponents have found success in playing the zone. The Cavaliers were a step quicker than the Irish on Jan. 18 and had their best shooting eye of the season in manhandling Notre Dame, 83-56.
Despite the drubbing, MacLeod, an 18-year veteran of wars in the NBA, where zone defense is illegal, doesn't plan on switching strategy tonight.
"We have been committed to man-to-man all year long, and we'll play man-to-man [tonight]," he said. "We haven't played any zone this year, and there's no need to change our defensive tactics now. We have a very healthy respect for their offensive sets and their individual offensive players, but it's kind of hard to change defensively what you do this late in the game, so we're going to play man-to-man again."
Bryant Stith, Virginia's all-time leading scorer, had 19 points in the teams' first meeting; but freshman guard Cory Alexander also was a killer, hitting four of five three-point shots and leading all scorers with 22 points.
The Irish, who were playing the eighth game on a nine-game road trip, were listless and off their game. LaPhonso Ellis, who is averaging 18 points, was only 3-for-12 from the field and collected only nine rebounds, the only time this season he has been under double figures in rebounding.
Despite its mediocre offensive play, Virginia (19-13) has put together a good season behind solid defense and rebounding. The Cavaliers beat Florida, 62-56, Monday behind Stith's 27 points and career-high 15 rebounds. Stith is only 6 feet 5, but a pounder on the offensive boards.
Neither Virginia nor the Irish believe the Cavaliers are 27 points better than Notre Dame. The Irish have grown in consistency since mid-January. They are winners of four in a row, including the 58-55 victory Monday over Utah, a result aided in large part by a technical foul called on Utes coach Rick Majerus with 9.7 seconds remaining.
"It's poetic justice," said Elmer Bennett in comparing the victory over Utah with Notre Dame's one-point loss to DePaul when MacLeod was whistled for a "T" with 2.2 seconds left. "It's unfortunate for a team to lose that way, but it happened to us. They say what goes around comes around."
With the victory over Utah, MacLeod becomes part of a trivia question. He is now the winningest first-year coach in Irish history, eclipsing Elmer Ripley, who went 17-4 in his only season at Notre Dame (1945-46).
This is the third trip for the Irish to the NIT title game. They lost to Virginia Tech in 1973 and to Michigan in 1984.
"We are happy to be here," said MacLeod. "If anybody had said back when we were 1-5 that you would be able to play for the NIT championship, I would have questioned their sanity."
"They're a much improved team," Virginia coach Jeff Jones said. "They're playing with a lot of confidence, especially the seniors."