Living on the edge

A look at Notre Dame's prospects for a second-place Big East finish; a No. 2 NCAA seed...and Mike Brey's controversial, but continually successful method of protecting late-game leads.

Style points don't matter in college basketball, so Notre Dame's harrowing escape from the Marvelous Marshon Brooks show Wednesday night in Rhode Island counts only as it should: as a "W" – a road victory, to boot.

This weekend offers Notre Dame's final of three Saturday/Monday tests as Seton Hall hits town Saturday for Austin Carr's induction into the program's recently formed Ring of Honor, followed 48 hours later by a visit from Top 15 foe Villanova on Senior Night at the Purcell Pavilion, Monday evening.

The 22-5/11-4 Irish are 7-0 at home this season – one of two league teams (Louisville) with an unblemished record in their own gym.

More important, Mike Brey's squad finished 3-1 in four neutral site tests (including three games vs. quality foes Georgia, No. 12 Wisconsin and No. 22 Kentucky), and with last night's 94-93 win at Providence, stand 4-4 in true conference road games.

The only league teams with more Big East road wins this season than the Irish? Pittsburgh (an incredible 7-1) and Georgetown (5-3). The 10-6 Hoyas are essentially 2.5 games behind the Irish in the conference standings due to a loss in South Bend to open the Big East slate.

But three of Notre Dame's road triumphs occurred vs. the league's cellar dwellers – likely irrelevant on Selection Sunday – that is, unless the Irish are paired vs. a potential No. 2 seed with multiple road conquests of Top 20 teams under its belt.

The Irish have a final chance to impress the Selection Committee: hold serve at home for a perfect 9-0 league mark through Monday night, then record a mild upset in Storrs next Saturday vs. No. 14 Connecticut.

Should Brey's seven-man group handle its three final foes, the 2011 Irish will clinch (at least) No. 2 in the Big East standings, a likely No. 7 ranking in the final regular season poll, and a 25-5 record in regular season play – with at least 11 RPI wins vs. the Top 50 on their resume.

The Irish would barely need to show up for the Conference Tournament; a No. 2 NCAA bid would be assured. (Fans and media place much more emphasis on those annual end-season crap-shoots than does the Selection Committee.)

But that's not what's on the mind of most following an all-too-close contest at The Dunk, Wednesday night..

Two for Two = W?

Disapprove of Mike Brey's Friartown strategy to trade an easy two-point bucket for Irish free throws in order to protect a big lead? You better get used to it – the 11-year Irish head man has consistently employed the strategy for the last four-plus seasons, with an 86-83 win over Marquette in 2008 as a launching point.

Notre Dame held a 10-point edge, 80-70 with 3:22 remaining over the Golden Eagles that evening. For the duration of the contest, the Irish attempted two shots, hit six of six free throw attempts and yielded five relatively uncontested layups – plus a crucial three-point field goal – to their long-time rivals from Milwaukee.

That open three-point shot, the result of ill-advised help defense vs. a penetrating guard, was likely the impetus for Brey's lead-protection strategy since – one he's utilized with near-perfect, though precarious results in 2011.

Arc angst: Notre Dame has preserved five late-game leads this season with clutch free throw shooting – and the continued allowance of relatively uncontested two-point shots as the clock winds down.

  • Georgia: The Irish held an 8-point lead with 2:38 remaining; were outscored 10-2 (allowing one three-point shot); hit just two of six free throws; did not attempt a shot from the field, and surrendered the lead as the Bulldogs forced the first of two overtimes. The Irish prevailed 10 minutes later, 89-83. Tim Abromaitis split two pairs of foul shots and Tyrone Nash missed a crucial pair that helped the Bulldogs forge overtime.

  • Gonzaga: Brey's crew led by 11 with two minutes remaining and possession; the Irish hit 10 of 15 foul shots; did not attempt a field goal, and prevailed by four. Freshman Eric Atkins missed three of four free throws late to keep the 'Zags within reach, ultimately falling short 83-79.

  • UConn: Notre Dame led by 10 with 3:17 remaining. The Irish hit just five of 10 free throws but allowed only one three-point shot, winning 73-70. Abromaitis missed two foul shots with less than seven seconds remaining to provide the visitors one rushed final possession.

  • Rutgers: This time up 11 with 5:27 remaining. The Irish drained 14 of 16 free throws, attempted just one field goal; allowed a lone three-point field goal by the visitors, and won by seven, though the lead was once cut to three.

Wednesday at Providence, Notre Dame held an 83-72 advantage with 3:53 remaining. When Providence point guard Victor Council (a 31 percent three-point shooter who at one point this season missed 17 consecutive field goal attempts), drained a triple to cut the lead to a more manageable eight, the Irish again went into their arc denial approach.

ND hit 10 of 14 from the foul line including two clutch offerings by Atkins to stretch the lead to six. After a Marshon Brooks running three-point shot, Abromaitis missed a potential game-clincher at the charity stripe, then intentionally bricked the second, effectively ending the contest 90-feet from the Providence bucket with one second remaining.

Providence hit two three-point shots in its comeback (one a full-speed miracle offering from Brooks) while the Irish allowed the Friars star to have his way with Ben Hansbrough in one-on-one situations.

The tactic ultimately succeeded for the 5th time in five tries this year. It's been one on which Brey has leaned for the better part of four seasons since he took down the quicker Golden Eagles that Monday night in South Bend.

You can't argue with the results, at least in 2010-11: five instances, one misstep (Georgia), and five victories. Brey is playing the percentages, and they're decidedly in his favor:

Carleton Scott: 88.7 percent
Ben Hansbrough (the usual pass receiver/shooter): 81.4 percent
Tim Abromaitis: 79.5 percent (down 8 percent from 2009-10)
Eric Atkins: 71.4 percent
Tyrone Nash: 68 percent
Scott Martin (generally the in-bounds passer): 66.7 percent

The master plan will, of course, someday backfire – at some point one too many Irish free throws will strike the iron. As long as it doesn't happen in March – the month where lasting lessons are learned – the head coach and architect of the nation's ninth-rated basketball team will continue to play the percentages…en route to second-place in the nation's toughest conference. Top Stories