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No. 1 Notre Dame has underdog in its DNA

No. 1 Notre Dame has underdog in its DNA

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) The rankings say Notre Dame is No. 1 going into the BCS championship against Alabama. Plenty of folks aren't buying it, starting with the oddsmakers who currently have the Crimson Tide as about a touchdown favorite for the Jan. 7 meeting in Miami between two of college football's proudest programs.

The Fighting Irish aren't sweating the point spread. In fact, it's pretty much business as usual for Notre Dame, which has a chance to become the first team since 1984 to start the season unranked and end it as national champions.

``Everybody thought everybody was better than us,'' defensive tackle Louis Nix III said Monday. ``Oklahoma was better than us. USC was better than us.

``We get it. We know how everyone thinks. We're just Notre Dame. Overrated Notre Dame. No one gives us credit for anything. Just the luck of the Irish, I guess.''

History suggests that being the underdog in the BCS title game hasn't been a bad thing. Of the 14 BCS championship games played since the system was implemented in 1998, seven have been won by the underdog.

Alabama was a slight underdog last year after losing to LSU in the regular season, and then shut out the Tigers with the national title on the line.

In the 2005 championship game between Texas and Southern California, Vince Young and the Longhorns felt as if they were being talked about as nothing more than a speed bump on the road to USC's coronation as one of the greatest teams in college football history. Plus, Young was still seething over coming in second to USC's Reggie Bush in the Heisman Trophy voting.

The result: Texas 41, USC 38, and a performance for the ages by Young.

The following season, Ohio State reached the national championship game with a perfect record, No. 1 ranking and a Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Troy Smith. Florida was the Buckeyes opponent and the question was: Did the Gators even belong in game?

Urban Meyer, the Gators' coach, made sure his players got that message. Even if it meant stretching the truth a bit. After a month of being told that nobody thought they had a chance to beat Ohio State, the Gators routed the Buckeyes 41-14 to start the Southeastern Conference's run of six straight BCS championships.

It's impossible to quantify what, if any, effect being the underdog has actually had on any of those ``upsets.'' Any team that gets to a championship game must be good in the first place.

Whether Notre Dame can or will use the slights - real or perceived - as motivation remains to be seen.

``I've used the technique before during my time as a head coach,'' Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said about playing the underdog card. ``I don't know that that is pertinent because it's a one-game deal. It's all or nothing.

``Both teams have different dynamics to deal with because of the long layoff. Preparation is more important than any kind of fire and brimstone speech that I can bring to them.''

Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said the coaches don't even need to bring it up. The Fighting Irish have played all season like a team with something to prove.

``I think it's a little bit part of our kids' DNA now,'' he said. ``We don't have to use it as much as maybe early in the year when we went on the road to Michigan State and they were ranked eighth and nobody was thinking we were very good. I think we've kind of just built it into who we are. Everybody likes telling us what we're not good at - which is fine by us. One of our strengths is knowing what we're not very good at. We try to play to our strengths and play away from our weaknesses.''

It's a style that has led to more than a few close calls on the way to Miami.

Notre Dame beat Purdue and BYU by three points each. The Irish needed three overtimes to beat Pittsburgh by a field goal and went to overtime against Stanford, too. In both the Pitt and Stanford games, Notre Dame caught a few breaks. A missed field goal here, a questionable call by the officials there.

Meanwhile, except for its upset loss to Texas A&M, Alabama has rarely been challenged on its way to a third BCS title game appearance in the past four seasons.

The Tide is outscoring its opponents by an average of 28 points per game. Notre Dame's average margin of victory is 16 points per game, as the Irish have leaned on Heisman Trophy finalists Manti Te'o and a stellar defense while they developed first-year starting quarterback Everett Golson.

``I understand why people say Alabama's going to win,'' said Nix, the 325-pound anchor of Notre Dame's defensive front. ``Great offensive line. Good quarterback. Great guys on the edge. They've been in the national championship twice in the last three years. I would probably pick Alabama, too.

``At the end of the day it's all about what's on the scoreboard.''

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphdrussoap

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Remembering Kobe Bryant's 55-point game in his last matchup against Michael Jordan

Remembering Kobe Bryant's 55-point game in his last matchup against Michael Jordan

As the basketball world mourns the death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant, memories of his career and the highlights that made us fall in love with him are surfacing. One of the most well-told narratives of Bryant’s 20-year career was his pursuit of Michael Jordan as the greatest player of all-time. 

Bryant idolized Jordan and was relentless in his pursuit of at least matching Jordan’s six championships. He competed like Jordan, scored like Jordan, berated teammates and opponents alike like Jordan and came up one title short of his idol’s total.

On one night, however, Bryant did get the best of His Airness -- in their last of eight head-to-head matchups. 

On March 28, 2003, a Friday night in Los Angeles, Bryant put on a show, scoring 55 points in what would stand as his highest scoring total ever against the Washington Wizards.

The Lakers defeated the Wizards, 108-94. Jordan, who had just turned 40 that February and was less than a month from ending his legendary career, finished with a team-high 23 points in over 40 minutes.

Bryant was in a different zone, though, dropping 42 points in the first half alone. Through the first two quarters, he made 14 of 19 shots from the field, including 8 of 11 three-point attempts. While he cooled off in the second half, shooting just 1-for-10, he added to his point total by knocking down 10 free throws. The performance stands as the ninth-highest scoring total of Bryant’s career, and his three-point shooting that night -- 9-of-13 -- is the biggest reason the Wizards are the only team he shot over 40 percent from three against in his career.

Going into that game, Bryant was already a three-time NBA champion at 24 years old and seemed to have gained Jordan’s respect as a player. But Jordan may have inadvertendly fueled Bryant's performance that night. Ex-Wizard Gilbert Arenas told a story on "The No Chill Podcast" of MJ telling Bryant he could never fill his shoes after the Wizards defeated the Lakers earlier in the season. Arenas claims Bryant didn't talk to his teammates for two weeks leading up to the rematch -- he internalized the jab from Jordan and turned it into the 55-point game he put up against the Wizards.

After learning of Bryant’s death in a helicopter crash on Sunday, Jordan released a statement through his spokeswoman saying Bryant was like a little brother to him.

“I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing. Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling," the statement read. "I loved Kobe -- he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force. Kobe was also an amazing dad who loved his family deeply -- and took pride in his daughter’s love for the game of basketball. Yvette joins me in sending my deepest condolences to to Vanessa, the Lakers organization and basketball fans around the world.”


Jordan and Bryant exchanged some fun and memorable banter in not only that game but in several of their meetings towards the latter part of Jordan’s career. Just a month earlier, the two went head-to-head in the 2003 All-Star Game. Each started, and clocked 36 minutes, in the double-overtime game, Bryant scoring 22 points for the winning Western Conference, Jordan scoring 20 for the East.

Bryant actually finished his career with a 5-3 head-to-head record against Jordan -- four of those matchups coming against the Wizards. Jordan averaged 24.5 points in those games and Bryant averaged 22.8 points. Whether Bryant actually surpassed Jordan or other legends as the greatest basketball player is debatable, but most agree that Bryant’s style and how he approached the game was as close to Jordan as any other player.

There was no better example of this than that March night in 2003.

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Rui Hachimura says, 'Kobe was a hero for me'

Rui Hachimura says, 'Kobe was a hero for me'

Kobe Bryant's popularity stretched far beyond the United States. He was a global icon and especially loved in Asia. 

Following the NBA star's shocking death on Sunday, the entire sports world grieved and shared fond memories of Bryant all over social media. 

Rui Hachimura grew up in Japan idolizing Bryant, so he took to Twitter a day after the accident to share his thoughts on his hero.  

"I was very shocked to hear of this incident," Hachimura said. "I really can't believe it. I can't speak. Kobe is also a hero to me, and I've seen [him] a lot since I was little. I have met him only once.

"Three years ago, during [the] Final 4, [Bryant gave] a special pair of shoes as a surprise to the team," he said. "Not only that, he talked about what Mamba Mentality is and what people should be before basketball players. 

"He was more than just a basketball player," he said. "It is really sad that this accident was like this. I wish good luck to his family and those who have been involved in this accident. Thanks, Kobe."

After Michael Jordan retired, Bryant became the most popular player in Japan. Along with Hachimura, he inspired players like Grizzlies forward Yuta Watanabe to play the game of basketball in the first place. 

Similar to what made Bryant so popular in the United States, Japan loved him for his tireless work ethic and killer instinct on the court. That's what earned him 15 All-NBA selections and five NBA titles, and along with his efforts off the court post-retirement, earned him the love and respect of so many people around the world. 

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