Is this week's No. 7 ranking in the Coach's Poll the highest the Irish will achieve?It depends on what could be a tricky week with a prime-time matchup vs. No. 15 Louisville on tap Wednesday followed by what will likely be a letdown scenario in Tampa vs. struggling South Florida, Saturday.
Two wins could push the Irish up to No. 6 when next Monday's rankings hit the Internet, especially with No. 4 Pittsburgh (winners last night as a slight underdog at rival West Virginia) traveling to No. 10 Villanova this week. Current No. 6 San Diego State also faces a tough test with a road tilt at UNLV while No. 5 Duke entertains No. 21 North Carolina Wednesday.
(No. 1 OSU would remain in the Top 5 with a loss at Wisconsin this week.)
The Irish program has not earned a No. 6 ranking in February (or March) since program legends Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge, and Tracy Jackson owned the Athletic and Convocation Center's court as seniors in 1981 (and also lost in the Sweet 16 – the infamous "Danny Ainge" game for those of you that want to start your lunch hour on a bad mood).
On a five-game winning streak, the Irish will be solid 4-to-5-point favorites vs. Louisville, especially with Cardinals guard Preston Knowles hampered by a hamstring injury. They'll be near double-digit favorites at South Florida…but I guarantee the Irish look much better vs. the dangerous Cardinals than they will this slumbering Saturday in Tampa.
A loss to Louisville would likely keep the Irish near or at No. 10 next Monday. A loss at South Florida would temporarily sully what has been an impressive Cinderella season, one that currently places the Irish at a 10 percent chance for a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed according to ESPN Bracketologist, Joe Lunardi (Lunardi has the Irish listed as a likely No. 2 seed entering this week's action).
Looking further ahead, the Irish will be hard-pressed to avoid a loss or two from road games with West Virginia, Providence, and Connecticut, and a home tilt vs. Villanova.
Will Mike Brey take home his third conference Coach of the Year award?Brey earned the honor in both 2007 and 2008 (thanks to 11-5 and 14-4 league finishes). Three such honors in five years would match Brey with St. John's legend Louie Carnesecca (1983, 85, 86) as the only three-time winners over a five-season span.
Only Connecticut's Jim Calhoun and Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim – the conference's all-time wins leader with an obscene 377 league victories – have earned the honor on four occasions. Ex-Georgetown head coach John Thompson joins Carnesecca as a three time winner.
Considering the quality product the Big East has produced over the last decade – consistently ranking as the nation's best or second-best conference – and considering this year's Irish squad features two transfers, two other former redshirts, and a sextet of starters with the following modest Scout.com recruiting rankings:
Not Rated (Tim Abromaitis); 2-Stars (Ben Hansbrough), 3-stars (Carleton Scott, Tyrone Nash and Eric Atkins), 4-stars (Scott Martin) – a 2011 award for Brey would seem just, assuming the Irish continue to threaten the conference's ceiling.
Brey's fellow 2011 COY candidates include Louisville's Rick Pitino (7-3), Pittsburgh's Jamie Dixon (10-1) and likely Connecticut's Calhoun (7-4), should the Huskies handle a challenging second-half schedule that includes four road games, three ranked foes, and eight contests vs. eight dangerous opponents.
(The official predicted order of finish of the four teams in question at the league's pre-season meeting were as follows: Pittsburgh (1); Notre Dame (7); Louisville (T-8); Connecticut (10).)
Now past the halfway point of his 11th league season, Brey has accrued the sixth-highest number of career victories (112 entering Wednesday's contest) and should catch Villanova legend Rollie Massimino (123) late next year – in the same number of seasons (12). Among the league's Top 10 career winning coaches, Brey owns the sixth-best percentage (.578).
What will it take for Brey to earn a third trophy for his mantle? The *conference tournament has no bearing so the Irish would likely have to finish among the league's Top 3 and ahead of both Louisville and Connecticut…then a vote between a first-place Dixon and third-place Brey would be a tough call. It would be hard to deny Brey the award with an unforeseen No. 2 regular season finish and upset win at Pittsburgh.
(*Brey is just 6-10 all-time in BE Tourney action though he's guided the Irish to a 4-4 mark with two Tournament semi-final appearances in the last four years).
Who's No. 3?Notre Dame entered the season with two proven offensive weapons: returning honorable mention All Big East selection Tim Abromaitis (18.2 ppg and 5.7 boards in 18 conference games last year) and rising 5th-year senior Ben Hansbrough.
After registering seven 20-plus point games in the season's first 13 contests, Abromaitis has intermittently struggled as a scoring option, managing 12 or fewer points in seven of his last 10 outings.
Conversely, Hansbrough has emerged as a Conference MVP candidate and the season's only constant for the Irish, though the ascension of Carleton Scott from athletic curiosity to reliable shooter, defender, rebounder, and leader this season has provided Brey with two "givens" entering each league battle.
But a team with aspirations as high as the 2011 Irish needs a third nightly option. Has Abromaitis regressed to a fourth, especially in league play where he's heavily scouted and feared as a shooter?
He'll have one or two more breakout games before the Irish enter NCAA Tournament action, but it appears that the senior from Unionville, CT will struggle to reach the high teens on a nightly basis vs. familiar foes.
Enter Scott Martin: off-season curiosity; early-season disappointment; and suddenly, a natural basketball player (again).
Martin's efforts during Notre Dame's five-game streak serve as a polar opposite to his struggles prior:
- Five consecutive double-digit scoring games – a streak that includes 20 free throws in 26 attempts. The hesitant Martin had previously missed eight of 18 foul shots over the first six league outings, and only attempted a combined two free throws in key non-conference games vs. Kentucky and Gonzaga.
- A 6 for 12 effort from long range over the last five games after missing 17 of his first 21 three-point offerings in the first six conference games.
- More than five rebounds per game over the last eight contests; just nine fouls during the winning streak after committing 13 in the previous four games; better than 43 percent from the field during the last five games after shooting just 36 percent in the league's first six contests (and missing a staggering 40 total shots).
More important, Martin's purported mid-range game has finally emerged, as has his oft-reference offensive savvy – previously noted by his head coach and at least three respected college basketball announcers during his times of struggle.
Most important, Martin's consistent presence as a scorer and offensive facilitator turns Abromaitis into the most dangerous fourth offensive weapon in the conference.
"I'm feeling better every day," Martin said following a win at DePaul. "This is the best I've felt in two years…I'm just happy to be playing. Playing and having fun."
(Martin missed the 2008-09 season due to NCAA transfer rules after leaving Purdue, and the 2009-10 season due to a torn ACL suffered in October.)
In the end, it doesn't matter who serves as Notre Dame's third or fourth offensive weapon, or if it changes each week or each game – it just has to be one of the pair, because the Irish can't beat a quality team without contributions from their senior shooting tandem.
(Note: We'll return with three more observations, including a look at Notre Dame's ability to mix-and-match defensively, following Wednesday's contest vs. No. 15 Louisville at the Joyce Center).