Now the fun starts

Notre Dame finished 11-1 and among the nation's Top 25 at the conclusion of its non-conference slate.

Notre Dame's 93-53 pummeling of Maryland Baltimore-County last night was the last in a line of late December formalities before the Irish could move on to the big guns in the nation's best conference.

Senior Tim Abromaitis collected his third career double-double with a 21-point/11-rebound performance. He was joined in the double digit scoring column by classmates Scott Martin (15) and Carleton Scott (12) while 5th-year senior leader Ben Hansbrough chipped in 10 despite an off-night from beyond the arc (1-6).

UMBC has not won in 12 games this season. (The Retrievers' spot on the schedule was originally occupied by perennial Patriot League contender Holy Cross.)

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Seven of the 11 pre-conference wins were at the expense of vastly inferior foes – par for the course in modern college basketball. Unranked in the pre-season, the Irish achieved a Top 25 ranking after a three-game championship sweep of Georgia, California and Wisconsin in the Old Spice Classic over Thanksgiving.

A 72-58 loss to explosive Kentucky and Louisville was offset by a home win over NCAA regular Gonzaga three days later.

The Irish received great balance for the bulk of the season's first two months as Hansbrough led the Irish in scoring on five occasions; Abromaitis in four games and Scott in three including the title tilt vs. Wisconsin in which freshman Eric Atkins tied for the team-lead with 12 points in a grinding victory.

The Irish remained ranked – No. 22 in the A.P. and No. 20 in the Coach's Poll heading into next Wednesday's Big East opener in South Bend vs. No. 10/9 Georgetown (10-1).

The Gauntlet

The top 10 Hoyas hit town Wednesday. The Irish then travel for a New Year's Day date with No. 5 Syracuse followed by a January 4 matchup in South Bend with No. 4 Connecticut.

So much for easing into conference action.

A 2-1 mark is likely the best-case scenario vs. that talented trio – and a mark that would place the Irish firmly among the nation's top 15. Finishing just 1-2 (protecting home court in one of two matchups is key) would keep the Irish afloat heading into their next five games – four of which involved home-and-home matchups with St. John's and Marquette.

Both the Red Storm and Golden Eagles have given the Irish fits over the last three seasons with St. John's winning two of three over the last two calendar years while Notre Dame has split the last two with Marquette though the long-time Irish rival has won three of the series' last five.

Intermixed in that 14-day, home-and-home stint is a Purcell Pavilion contest vs. physical Cincinnati. The Bearcats and Irish split last season though ND has pounded the Queen City crew in both of their trips to South Bend.

Notre Dame then closes its January slate two days later with a trip to current No. 6 Pittsburgh before an odd nine-day layoff – a Bye week that conveniently splits the first-half of Big East play (9 games) from the remainder.

Head above water?

One month, nine games, seven opponents, four of which currently sit among the nation's Top 10. Four road games vs. four teams expected to sail into or find the NCAA Tourney bubble (Syracuse, St. John's, Marquette, and Pittsburgh).

Three of Notre Dame's first nine foes (seven teams) have yet to lose (including 11-0 Cincinnati). If the Irish can emerge a mere 5-4 over their first nine Big East games (highlighted above) they'd control their post-season destiny with a far more favorable second half schedule:

  • February 3 at DePaul: The Blue Demons are the league doormat again with a 6-6 non-conference mark that includes a 22-point defeat at scrappy Indiana State – a team the Irish handled by 13 in South Bend.
  • February 6 vs. Rutgers: The Irish haven't lost at home to the Scarlet Knights since John MacLoed's final season (1999). Rutgers is currently 8-2 though vs. a less-than-impressive slate.
  • February 9 vs. #25 Louisville: The 10-1 Cardinals were upset this month by Drexel but also boast two wins over Top 20 foes Butler and UNLV. Louisville head coach Rick Pitino is 0-2 in South Bend directing the Card's.

A 3-0 record is attainable as the Irish should be heavy favorites in the first two contests leading into a peer matchup vs. Louisville.

  • February 12 at South Florida: The first of three road games in 11 days though the Irish should be favored in two, including this vs. the formerly up-and-coming Bulls. Stan Heath's group is the Big East's only losing team (to date) with a 6-7 mark though they've bothered Brey's Irish in Tampa, winning once (2007), losing by just seven as heavy underdogs in 2008, and losing on two free throws at the final gun last January thanks to a huge night from the departed Luke Harangody.
  • February 19 at West Virginia: The defending Big East Tournament champions and 2010 Final Four participants have opened 8-2 with a neutral site loss vs. #16 Minnesota while also dropping a road decision to a solid Miami team. After winning 11 consecutive vs. West Virginia over a 7-year span, the Mountaineers have taken four of seven from Brey's Irish including consecutive Big East Tournament wins – most recently in the 2010 conference semi-finals – and two straight in Morgantown.
  • February 23 at Providence: The Friars have started 11-2 with a two-point loss at Boston College as the most telling contest. Providence has implemented a little thing called "defense" (they chose to ignore one side of the court last season) and the early returns vs. lesser competition have been encouraging.

A 2-1 record in this three-game road swing would set the Irish up nicely for the stretch run…realistically: 1-2 avoids calamity as Notre Dame is bound to drop a road game as a slight favorite. The Irish are just 5-13 in Big East road games over the last two seasons.

  • February 26 vs. Seton Hall: New head coach (Kevin Willard), same old Hall? The veteran group (6-5 this season) has the talent to upset anyone, especially if league-leading scorer Jeremy Hazell returns from a wrist injury, but the Pirates rarely answer the bell when the chips are down. They do have five "quality losses" on their non-conference resume but no solid wins to date. Seton Hall has not won at Notre Dame since 2001 though they did defeat the Irish last February in Piscataway.
  • February 28 vs. #8 Villanova: Senior Day will bid adieu to Ben Hansbrough and Tyrone Nash. It's also Notre Dame's best chance to impress the NCAA Selection Committee considering the contest that follows. The Wildcats have won the last two and five of seven; thankfully for Irish fans – and the team's guards – the Scottie Reynolds era has ended in Philadelphia. This is perhaps the key game to draw in South Bend as the Irish traditionally struggle in Philadelphia (and Brey has lost three of his last four visits).
  • March 5 at #4 Connecticut: Senior Day in Storrs and a matchup in the always raucous Gampel Pavilion. If the Irish are to get the Huskies, January 4 in South Bend is likely their best bet. Notre Dame handled UConn last March on Senior Day in South Bend, effectively eliminating Jim Calhoun's squad from the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Another three game set – another 2-1 goal. A 1-2 finish wouldn't kill Irish, but the program rarely receives the benefit of the doubt when seeds are handed out in March.


I never thought the 2007 Irish could reach 12-6; that the 2007 Irish could explode at 14-4; that the highly ranked 2009 Irish would tank at 8-10; or that the 2010 Irish would rebound to finish 10-8 last season – without their best player – after a 6-8 start. In other words: take this with a grain of salt.

Best-Case Scenario: The Irish drop two straight only once; win one on the road from either St. John's, Marquette, or West Virginia, and sweep the three remaining road tilts in which they'll be favored (DePaul, South Florida, Providence). Those four road victories, coupled with a plausible 8-1 home mark puts the Irish among the Conference's top five at 12-6 entering the post-season.

Worst-Case Scenario: The Irish emerge from the opening nine-game gauntlet at 3-6 (tough contests should be expected in each of the nine matchups), a disheartening start exacerbated later by just one road loss to either South Florida or Providence. Notre Dame barely defends its home court with a 6-3 final mark. Their standard three road wins result in a 9-9 record and the need to once again advance to the Big East semi-finals to gain an NCAA bid.

Likely Scenario: Notre Dame emerges from the opening nine at a battle-tested, but unranked 5-4. They reel off four straight to reach 9-4 and a Morgantown showdown vs. peer West Virginia. A loss there is offset by a two-game streak for 11 wins in their first 16 Big East games. Back-to-back matchups vs. powers Villanova and UConn – both ahead of them in the late-season standings – become gravy as the Irish stand on firm ground entering the post-season. A win vs. the Wildcats or Huskies would position the Irish as tournament contenders; a pair of losses merely sullies their seeding in both the Big East and NCAA Tourneys.

And then the fun begins all over again.

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