Home Stretch

A look ahead as the Irish enter their final five games with a firm grip on second place in the Big East.

They exceeded the expectations of most (including Irish Eyes') with a 6-3 record over the grueling first half of an 18-game Big East slate.

They've matched our predicted W/L totals (4-0) to start the schedule's more forgiving second half, beating up two league doormats, holding off suddenly dangerous Rutgers, and rallying to take down Louisville, a Top 15 foe, at home.

Now Mike Brey's seventh-ranked Irish sit two games behind first-place Pittsburgh and two ahead of the growing pack; and enter the season's home stretch on a seven-game winning streak including three straight outside of South Bend.

Five regular season contests remain including three on the road; two among the quintet will pit Notre Dame vs. Top 15 competition.

A 1:00 CBS Saturday matchup in Morgantown looms, the middle leg of a three-game road trip that began last Saturday with an evisceration of South Florida and ends next Wednesday with a date at The Dunk vs. Providence.

My initial forecast for this stretch called for a 1-2 road trip, but at this point the smart money points to 2-1 as the seasoned Irish no longer resemble the (short-handed) squad that was waxed in back-to-back mid-January road matchups vs. Marquette and St. John's.

There's legitimate fight in these Irish, and though I'd wager a fair sum that the team's winning streak will end before they return home for a February 26 matchup vs. Seton Hall, the ingrained "Doubting Thomas" routine is no longer necessary for long-time Notre Dame fans.

Should we expect a finishing flourish and run to the brink of a league title? Or sub-.500 swoon into mid-March and the two tournaments that matter?

I'm glad you asked.

More heavy lifting

The team's four most recent victories occurred vs. opponents Irish Eyes ranked as the #9, #8, #7, and #4 most dangerous matchups over Notre Dame's final nine contests.

Saturday marks the beginning of a tough closing stretch featuring five of our original six toughest second-half matchups:

  1. At UConn to conclude the season
  2. Saturday at West Virginia
  3. A home Big Monday matchup on February 28 vs. Villanova
  4. Louisville (Whom the Irish defeated in overtime)
  5. At Providence next Wednesday - the Friars have defeated Villanova and Louisville at The Dunk this season
  6. Jeremy Hazell show on February 26 in South Bend.

After taking the court just four times in the last 25 days, the Irish face five games in 15 days – only one of which will likely feature a disparate point spread (home vs. Seton Hall). A 3-2 finish would likely cement second place in the Big East regular season standings. The Irish would need at least four, if not a clean sweep, to catch Pittsburgh (over whom Brey's bunch owns the tiebreaker) for the league crown.

Don't bet on 2-3 finish, not with the squad showing such dedication to defense (According to Basketball Prospectus writer John Gasaway, opponents are shooting just 40 percent on two-point field goal attempts during the team's seven-game streak); and not with a quintet of rebounders attacking the glass, as noted below:

  • Carleton Scott: 54 boards over the last six games with 11 blocked shots
  • Tim Abromaitis: Eight rebounds in two of the last three; at least six boards in half of his league games to date
  • Jack Cooley: Nine offensive rebounds in his last 29 minutes played
  • Scott Martin: At least six boards in five of his last nine contests; three blocked shots at South Florida
  • Tyrone Nash: 25 rebounds over the last four games

And not with the league's most valuable player to date, Ben Hansbrough, cajoling the already-focused Irish through 40 minutes of basketball on both ends of the court.

"I'm blessed with a rotation of maturity, good leadership, and poise," Brey noted today when asked about bouncing back from two January road losses with seven consecutive wins. "Older guys tend to panic less; they've been through it before and that certainly helps the coach – senior leadership like that."

These aren't the long-range chucking Irish of the recent past (nine Big East teams have attempted more three-point shots than Brey's group). Rather, they feature an efficient, versatile, unselfish offense that's augmented by a communicative and perhaps more important – long, five of seven regulars stand 6'8" or taller – team defense.

The Irish can run and score with their peers or balance out a more talented foe with the vexing Burn offense. They can intermix man and zone defense with the ability to rebound from both. As a result, they're no longer trying to "steal" a road game, nor are they "playing with house money" – two phrases used with regularity over the last seven years.

"We're trying to chase down the regular season title," Brey said Thursday. "We've talked about that. By 7:00 Saturday night (the standings) could look really different."

It would be a first for the program, though Notre Dame won the league's former Western Division crown with an 11-5 mark in Brey's first season (2001).

"I think it's great when you're looking at the Big East standings (on television) and we're flashing up there in second," Brey admitted. "It's great P.R. for all of us, it's great for recruiting, you want to ride all that juice as much as you can, no question.

"You want (the positive publicity) to make the group more confident, but not rest on their laurels. This group won't do that – they want to play and want to keep chasing."

Tempted after each win by the media, Brey won't allow the Irish to look further ahead than the Big East Tournament – there'll be no talk of NCAA seeds or destination until the squad falls or prevails in Manhattan.

"You're trying to stay in the Big East moment as much as possible," Brey said of the necessity for tunnel vision entering the home stretch. "You want to bottle it (the momentum)…what I've tried to do is enjoy every day with this group. It's a heck of a group to be around. There's a lot of interesting personalities on the team and you want to enjoy them. I don't ever want to take (veterans) for granted."

Those veterans are within one game of the program's longest winning streak. They hold the current longest winning streak of all Big East teams, and they've defeated more Top 50 foes – nine – than any team in the nation. (Three more remain, with Seton Hall and Providence in the Top 105).

Can they improve still?

"Oh I think so. We can get better, and we've talked about that," Brey offered.

If that comes to fruition, Manhattan won't be the only tournament site in which the Irish make noise this season.

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories