Hope Floats

Help is on the way next season, but can the 2011-12 Irish stay above water in the challenging Big East?

A 27-game home court winning streak has afforded Mike Brey's struggling Irish squad a fresh start – at least in the eyes of the Vegas odds makers.

Notre Dame, 8-5, and losers of each of their five matchups vs. teams of relative quality, opens its Big East season vs. Pittsburgh tonight in South Bend. The Panthers, ranked No. 22 and 11-2 overall, have been tabbed as favorites of but a single point vs. Brey's undermanned crew.

Notre Dame has won three straight in the series and the Irish upset then-No. 2 Pittsburgh, 56-51 in the Petersen Events Center last January. The win gave Notre Dame national recognition and propelled the 2010-11 squad to a consistent top 10 ranking for the remainder of the regular season, and a No. 4 ranking in both polls entering the conference tournament.

Neither the Panthers nor the Irish measure up to last year's standards. And if the season progresses as most have projected, Notre Dame will struggle to its worst season under the guidance of its 12-year head coach.

Then again, Brey's bunch has one arrow left to fire – actually, make that nine. If Notre Dame's home winning streak reaches 36, one that would encompass the nine-game 2012 Big East campaign, the pundits and critics will have once again been proven wrong regarding the Irish hoopsters at season's end.

Below is a look at this season's Big East schedule, broken down into three distinct categories relevant for the Irish and their fans.

Find a Way

Games in which a Notre Dame victory would be considered both an upset –mild or otherwise–and a quality win for its NCAA resume at season's end:

  1. December 27 vs. Pittsburgh: The Panthers have more developed veteran players but the program's recent trademark – consistent, dedicated defense, is missing as Pitt approaches league play. The home opener is a winnable game for what remains a confident squad inside the Purcell Pavilion. Point guard Travon Woodall is out for the visitors.

  2. January 4 at Cincinnati: The Bearcats (along with cross-town rival Xavier) are college basketball's least appealing product after an ugly December brawl. Senior center Yancey Gates will return from his suspension in time to take on the Irish in the Queen City.

  3. January 14 vs. Connecticut: Notre Dame tends to play the Huskies tough when they battle twice in a season. The Irish swept the eventual national champions last winter and should push the far more talented Huskies to the brink for 30 minutes – the final 10 will tell the tale.

  4. January 25 at Seton Hall: Familiar names such as Pope and Theodore remain, but the Pirates face the Irish between games vs. Villanova and Louisville (three days after the Irish hit Newark). The dreaded sandwich could help the visitors catch Seton Hall sleeping.

  5. February 22 vs. West Virginia: The Irish have lost four of five after previously winning 13 of 14 matchups.

  6. February 18 at Villanova: The Wildcats have struggled to a 7-5 start and draw Notre Dame two days before a matchup with defending champion Connecticut. The timing favors the Irish – the venue, does not.

More than One?

More than one win by the Irish vs. the selection of foes below is highly unlikely. We rate them in order of difficulty:

  1. January 7 at #4 Louisville – The press, the venue, and the pick-and-roll could bludgeon the Irish offense…as much as 90 feet from its basket.
  2. January 29 at #9 UConn – Expect the first one (in South Bend) to be close. Don't expect an encore effort.
  3. January 21 vs. #1 Syracuse – The loss of Tim Abromaitis negates any Irish home court shooting edge vs. the vaunted Orange zone.
  4. February 4 vs. #13 Marquette – Louisville, Part II, only with potential help from the home court foul calls.
  5. February 27 at #12 Georgetown – Just one day of rest following a trip to The Garden to take on St. John's and Game 16 of a grueling 18-game conference slate.
  6. February 8 at West Virginia – Brey's group has looked terrible in Morgantown during its last two meetings after dominating the Mountaineers wherever the two teams met for nearly a decade.
  7. February 25 at St. John's – The Red Storm is down from last year's breakout season but their quickness and confidence at home will again trouble Notre Dame's depleted roster.

Bring ‘Em Home

More than one loss from this group and Notre Dame's post-season plans will be in jeopardy. The quintet is rated from easiest to potentially dangerous.

  1. January 10 vs. USF: Will this be Notre Dame's first Big East win or its 29th straight at home? Part I of that equation – a visit from Pittsburgh – plays out tonight.
  2. February 15 vs. Rutgers: You can't lose to Rutgers in South Bend. Ever.
  3. February 13 vs. DePaul: The Blue Demons (9-3) suddenly have punch. They'll bring a crowd with them as well.
  4. March 2 vs. Providence: New coach, new system (it includes defense) and enough quickness to bother Notre Dame's backcourt, even on the Joyce Center floor.
  5. January 16 at Rutgers: Tough timing for Brey and the Irish and Piscataway has been a bit of a trouble spot for the Irish, who've lost four of their last six trips to THE RAC.

Final Prediction: 7-11

Expect six wins at home (the Irish are 39-5 in South Bend during conference play over the last five seasons, the best mark in the Big East.)

Should the Irish somehow finish 7-2 at the Purcell Pavilion, a 9-9 Big East mark isn't out of the question.

Record broken down by category:

Find a Way: 2-4
More than One? 1-6
Bring ‘Em Home: 4-1

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