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March 19, 2009Former Indiana great and Iowa head coach Steve Alford returns to his Hoosier state roots Thursday night when he leads his New Mexico squad into the Joyce Center to take on the Fighting Irish (19-14) in second-round action of the NIT.
Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. EDT with the broadcast on ESPN2.
Notre Dame is the No. 2 seed and New Mexico is the No. 3 out of the Mountain West Conference, where the Lobos finished third behind NCAA participants Brigham Young and Utah.
Alford was Indiana's Mr. Basketball at New Castle High School in Indiana in 1983, averaging a remarkable 37.7 points per game before moving on to play under Bob Knight at Indiana University. Alford was the Big Ten player of the year and a first-team All-American while helping lead the Hoosiers to the 1987 national championship.
Alford, following an up-and-down eight-year tenure at Iowa, was named MWC coach of the year and has a sparkling 46-20 record in two years in Albuquerque.
New Mexico advanced to the final 16 of the NIT by defeating Nebraska at home Tuesday night, 83-71, after losing to Wyoming in the first round of the Mountain West Conference tournament.
Notre Dame advanced to the final 16 of the NIT with a hard-fought 70-64 victory over Alabama-Birmingham Tuesday night at the Joyce Center.
New Mexico connected on 8-of-15 three-pointers in the victory over the Cornhuskers after making an early exit from the MWC tournament, due in large part to a 3-of-23 shooting performance from three-point range against Wyoming.
Leading the way for the Lobos is 6-foot-5 senior Tony Dandridge, who averages 15.2 points per game, but has been scoring at a 20.2 clip over the last seven games. Dandridge was named first-team all-MWC.
Banging bodies up front is 6-foot-9, 245-pound senior Daniel Faris, who averages 12.0 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Faris scored a career-high 28 points and pulled down 13 rebounds in the victory over Nebraska.
Six-foot-six junior Roman Martinez is the co-leader with Faris at 6.4 rebounds per game. Martinez averages 10.8 points per game and has connected on 67 three-pointers.
New Mexico's top threat from beyond the arc likely won't be in the starting lineup Thursday night. Six-foot-seven senior Chad Toppert has made 80 three-pointers, including a 3-for-8 effort and 15 points in the victory over Nebraska. Toppert, who also shoots 82.4 percent from the free-throw line, had missed his previous 17 three-point attempts prior to his success against the Cornhuskers.
The final two starters are 6-foot-1 sophomore Dairese Gary, a Elkhart, Ind., native in Notre Dame's back yard, and 6-foot-5 freshman Phillip McDonald. Gary and McDonald combine for about 15 points per game. Gary, from Concord High School, leads the team with 4.1 assists per game.
Six-foot-two freshman Nate Garth (4.1 ppg.) comes off the bench and averages three assists per game.
Dandridge, Faris and Gary all have made at least 100 free throws for a team that is shooting 80.3 percent from the line (49-of-61) in the last two games. For the season, the Lobos are shooting just above 70 percent from the line.
New Mexico split its two games with BYU and Utah-the Mountain West's two NCAA tournament entries. They lost at Creighton-a No. 1 NIT seed-82-75, and fell to Virginia Commonwealth, a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament, 67-55.
Notre Dame will once again try to delay the commencement of renovations inside the Joyce Center. If the Irish defeat the Lobos, and No. 4 seed Kentucky knocks off No. 1 seed Creighton, Notre Dame would host the Wildcats next week with the winner advancing to the final four of the NIT in New York's Madison Square Garden. If the Irish and Creighton win, Notre Dame would have to travel to Omaha to take on the Bluejays.
The Irish could be without the services of 6-foot-9 senior Zach Hillesland, who twisted his left knee on an awkward alley-oop pass Tuesday night against UAB. If Hillesland can't go, look for sophomore Tyrone Nash to get the nod. Either way, Nash likely will get a majority of the playing time based upon his solid play over the last month.
Once again, it was Luke Harangody's 22 points and 10 rebounds leading the way in the six-point victory over the Blazers Tuesday. Kyle McAlarney was the only other Irish player in double figures with 12.
The Irish will be looking for a better turnout at the Joyce Center after Tuesday's St. Patrick's Day game that tipped off at 9 p.m. drew slightly more than 2,000 fans, including less than 200 students.
Still, it was a boisterous crowd, and Notre Dame's home court advantage should be enough to help tilt the scale their way once again.
Pointspread: Notre Dame by 5
Prister's Prediction: Notre Dame 77, New Mexico 69
Season record: 24-9 straight up; 10-16 vs. points