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ND and the SEC: Conference's dominance doesn't intimidate Irish

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ND and the SEC: Conference's dominance doesn't intimidate Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame features big, physical players in the trenches, a dynamic defense and an offense built around a stable of athletic running backs. That combination has led plenty to draw the conclusion Notre Dame is built like a menacing SEC team -- just like the one they'll face in the BCS Championship.

Apt or not, it's a conclusion at which defensive end Stephon Tuitt bristled.

"I wouldnt say were kind of like an SEC team. Were ourselves," Tuitt said Friday. "We go to work every day like everybody else. We showed it in the production, and we proved that."

Tuitt knows all about the SEC, hailing from Monroe, Ga, which is about a half-hour drive from the University of Georgia. Rated by Rivals.com as a five-star defensive end out of high school, Tuitt fielded offers from seven SEC schools including Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Auburn and LSU.

"Its tough, physical players," Tuitt said. "But at the same time, we have a tough, physical line as well, and our defense is tough and physical too."

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Notre Dame players recognize the challenges Alabama presents, but think they match up well against the Tide. Judging by the games early spread, though, few outside of Notre Dame nation agree with that premise. Alabama is favored by about 10 points by most Vegas outlets, and plenty of prognosticators don't give the Irish a chance on Jan. 7.

That's not necessarily a shot against Notre Dame, although some Irish players will use it to add fuel to the nobody-believes-in-us fire that's burned all year. To some extent, what those lines are the product of is the SEC winning six consecutive titles.

So has the SEC earned the right to be favored in every championship until the conference is dethroned?

"I dont think so, man," safety Zeke Motta said. "Football is football. It can go either way anytime."

If that doesnt sound like a ringing endorsement, Louis Nix offered up a different angle.

"The SEC didnt win it, the certain teams in the game won it. I dont care about the conference thing," the affable defensive tackle said. "The teams that won it the last six years so happened to be in the SEC. Those guys earned the title. I'm happy I'm facing one of those teams that won it twice already. I can't wait to play them, and cant wait for January 7."

LSU and Auburn have won single titles, while Alabama and Florida have garnered two championships over the last six years. The conference has tremendous recruiting pull, and the region produces loads of talent at the prep level every year. And look no further than Bret Bielema leaving a top-four job in the Big Ten for a top-seven (at best) gig at Arkansas last week as evidence of the conference's pull.

To be the best, you have to beat the SEC.

"They have dominated, they are the preeminent conference, they've proven it on the field," coach Brian Kelly said. "Alabama has been the benchmark for college football, in three out of the last four National Championship games. Were aware of the challenge in front of us. We welcome it. It's one that were putting ourselves in a position to go find out where we need to go from here."

Related: Practice not just about BCS Championship for Notre Dame

For all of the SEC's chest-beating, Alabama was in the same boat as Notre Dame a month ago. After losing to Texas A&M, the Tide needed two teams to lose to reach the BCS Championship, no matter how hard some tried to convince themselves a one-loss Alabama team would be ranked over an undefeated Notre Dame or Kansas State squad.

For Notre Dame, going undefeated meant they met the minimum requirement for BCS Championship consideration -- of course, they could've done more to strengthen their case earlier in the season with some style points, no matter how badly the team wanted to shun that notion. Despite the strength of the conference, a loss is a loss, and the prospect of not having an SEC team in the BCS Championship led to plenty of hand-wringing.

It really doesnt make any difference how many game-winning shots you made in the past, the only one you gotta focus on is the one you gotta shoot right now, Alabama coach Nick Saban said.

The stars aligned for Alabama when both K-State and Oregon lost on the same Saturday, and when Georgia botched a last-minute drive two weeks later. The defending champions actually get to defend their title, and could make it seven in a row from the nations best conference.

For Notre Dame, they get the opportunity to win the program's first title since 1988. But on a larger scale -- one the team probably doesn't care much about, but one that most everyone else around the sport does -- the Irish can stonewall the SEC's recent dominance atop college football, at least for one year.

Were very ecstatic about this challenge, running back Theo Riddick said. What else can I say, you want to beat the best. So we have that chance.

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: After 20 games, do we know the identity of this Blackhawks team?

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks Talk Podcast: After 20 games, do we know the identity of this Blackhawks team?

On the latest Hawks Talk Podcast Tracey Myers and Jamal Mayers join Pat Boyle to discuss the teams wins over the Rangers and Penguins.  Have they figured some things out and what is the identity of this team after 20 games?

Jammer weighs in on Artem Anisimov’s big week and are there enough Hawks committed to net front presence?  They also discuss the surging play of the blue liners and did the Hawks fail to send a message to Evgeni Malkin, after he kneed Corey Crawford in the head?

Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball making rookie history as they prepare to face each other

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USA TODAY

Lauri Markkanen, Lonzo Ball making rookie history as they prepare to face each other

It'd be a stretch to say that any rookie is having a better or more impactful season than Philadelphia's Ben Simmons. The Sixers are 9-7, and Simmons looks like a 10-year veteran with his decision making, athleticism and all-around feel for the game. He's the frontrunner for MVP, but there are two other rookies vying to catch Simmons and win that title. And they'll face each other tomorrow night in Los Angeles.

Lonzo Ball was the second pick in June's NBA Draft, and fellow Pac-12 freshman standout Lauri Markkanen went five picks later to the Bulls, who had traded up as part of the Jimmy Butler trade. Both players were drafted to rebuilding franchises - the Lakers still working out the kinks in the post-Kobe era, and the Bulls beginning their rebuild after dealing Butler - and were expected to make immediate impacts on their franchises.

Ball's was more pronounced, as the Lakers dealt D'Angelo Russell to the Nets on draft night to free up space at the point for their prized No. 2 pick. Markkanen's came more abruptly, as the 20-year-old was thrust into the starting lineup after Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic's fight put Mirotic in the hospital and Portis on paid leave. However they got there, both players have been impressive in their early NBA careers.

Starting with Markkanen, the Bulls knew the 7-foot stretch forward was a perfect build for the modern NBA. He set freshman 3-point and rebounding records that, since 1992, only some guy named Kevin Durant had reached. After a successful summer in Eurobasket he was set for a large role with the Bulls, and he's succeeded in just about every aspect. His 15.6 points per game are third only to Simmons and the other Lakers rookie Kyle Kuzma, and his 8.1 rebounds are second to Simmons. And his 2.6 made 3-pointers per game are most among rookies, and well past No. 2 on the list (Utah's Donovan Mitchell, 1.9 per game).

In fact, Markkanen would become the only rookie in NBA history to average at least 8.0 rebounds and 2.5 3-pointers per game. The 2.5 3-pointers would break a rookie record currently held by Damian Lillard (2.3 per game). The closest a rookie has ever come to reaching those marks was Stephen Curry, who averaged 4.5 rebounds and 2.1 3-pointers per game as a rookie. Allen Iverson also met the 4/2 threshold, but that's a far cry from Markkanen's 8/2.5 mark. Paul Pierce's rookie season saw him average 6.4 rebounds and 1.8 3-pointers.

But that's not all. If he kept those averages up he would be just the fifth player EVER to accomplish those thresholds. The others are James Harden, Kevin Durant, DeMarcus Cousins and Antonie Walker, who naturally did it twice.

So, yeah, Markkanen is having quite a rookie year.

So, too, is Ball. While he's had some real issues with efficiency, slashing .313/.228/.462 and has committed 2.6 turnovers per game, his counting stats have been outstanding. Ball is averaging 8.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and 7.1 assists, and that puts him in equally impressive company.

Simmons has reached those numbers this season, too, averaging 18.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists. You may have heard of the other two players, named Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson.

The two future Hall of Famers averaged these numbers:

Robertson: 30.5 points, 10.1 rebounds, 9.7 assists (missing averaging a triple-double for the season by 20 assists)

Johnson: 18.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists

Ball is also averaging 0.9 blocks, and no other rookie guard has ever accomplished that. It might not always look pretty for Markkanen and Ball as they feel their way out in the NBA, but just remember watching these two that they're in the midst of making history in the new era of the NBA.