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Second billing suits Irish

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LAHAINA, Hawaii – Late Tuesday evening, as the gym began to empty, a Maui Invitational employee updated the bracket that hangs on a wall near the concession stand at the Lahaina Civic Center.

Tournament chairman emeritus Wayne Duke couldn't help but smile at the title game matchup.

"North Carolina vs. Notre Dame," he said. "Wow – you couldn't ask for a better championship."

Indeed, the 2,400 fans who trekked to Maui for this week's tournament have to be feeling fortunate. It's not often, after all, that you see the top basketball team in the country face off against No. 2 – especially this early in the season.

But that's exactly what will happen when national title favorite North Carolina plays Notre Dame on Wednesday. The Fighting Irish might be ranked eighth in this week's Associated Press poll, but after their performance in Tuesday's 81-80 semifinal victory over No. 6 Texas, it's no stretch to say that, four games into the season, Mike Brey's squad is the second-best team in college basketball.

Right behind the Tar Heels.

"They're a hard team to play at this time of the year," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "On any given night, they can beat any basketball team in the country."

That includes No. 2 Connecticut, No. 3 Louisville and No. 4 Pittsburgh – the three teams that everyone seems to think will finish ahead of Notre Dame in what promises to be a grueling Big East race. That could very well happen, but right now, Notre Dame is better than all of them.

"They're almost in midseason form," Barnes said.

Considering Notre Dame's résumé , that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Brey's squad returns four starters from a team that finished second in the Big East last season, and none of them are as important as junior Luke Harangody, a second-team All-American and reigning conference player of the year.

Even though 29-point outings like the one he had against Texas on Tuesday have long been commonplace, the NBA future of the 6-foot-9, 255-pound Harangody has often been questioned because of his lack of quickness and athleticism.

"Baloney," an NBA scout said after Tuesday's game. "That guy can play in the league. He sets picks, he rebounds, he passes well – all the little things. He'd be a good fit for a team that plays a certain style, a team like the Lakers. He could be Luke Walton."

Notre Dame's threats extend far beyond Harangody.

Senior Kyle McAlarney is the best three-point shooter in college basketball. Last year he made 44.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc and is 11-for-20 this week in Maui.

Point guard Tory Jackson, who is averaging 18.5 points and 6.5 assists this week, might be the team's most improved player if it weren't for guys such as Zach Hillesland, Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller – all long, lanky small forwards who can connect from long distance.

Notre Dame led the Big East in scoring last season with 80.4 points a game, and no one will be surprised if the Irish repeat the feat.

Still, to consistently be mentioned in the same breath with the upper echelon, Brey knew his team needed to improve in some key areas – all of which were challenged by Texas.

Notre Dame had a reputation of being soft defensively, yet it held Longhorns leading scorer A.J. Abrams to 8-of-27 shooting. The Irish were said to be apt to wilt under heavy defensive pressure. Yet against Texas and Justin Mason – arguably the top defender in the Big 12 – the Irish committed just six turnovers.

Other than Harangody and seldom-used reserve Tyrone Nash, Notre Dame doesn't have the kind of beefy forwards who bang in the post. But Tuesday, the Irish's guards and wings hardly backed down from a Texas frontcourt that includes future NBA forwards Damion James, Connor Atchley, Gary Johnson and the 300-pound Dexter Pittman.

In the end, they lost the rebounding battle 48-37 – a modest difference considering the Longhorns are arguably the most physical team Notre Dame will face all season.

"Those were Big East bodies we were going against," said Harangody, who snared 13 rebounds.

But they weren't enough to overcome the resilient Irish.

Each time Texas seemed to grab the momentum by making a big shot, Notre Dame responded with one of its own. That was especially the case during a 10-minute stretch late in the second half, when the Longhorns failed to make consecutive baskets.

"Our advantage in this tournament is that we're older and we've been doing it longer together than maybe any team," Brey said. "When we were getting winded, I told them, 'I think we can think better [than them] when we're tired, because we've been through it. I think we can execute better when we're tired, because we've been through it.' That's what won out in the end."

It also helped that Abrams' 60-foot three-point attempt at the buzzer clanged off the front of the rim. The shot wouldn't have meant anything if Jackson, Harangody and Hillesland hadn't combined to miss six foul shots in the final 44 seconds.

No, the Irish weren't perfect Tuesday. And they won't be during a Big East season that Brey predicted will be a "blood-letting." Come Sunday as many as eight teams from the conference could be ranked.

None of them, though, are as good and experienced and versatile as Notre Dame. Actually, make that No. 2 Notre Dame.

The ranking would be legitimate.

At least for right now.