"Certainly beating Syracuse, the shot-heard-round-the-world, so to speak, makes a group feel good about themselves," said Brey of the recent surge. "I'm really proud that after beating Syracuse we didn't get satisfied or distracted, we got more hungry; we got more anxious because we felt, ‘Maybe we have something here.' Then we won at Seton Hall, and Connecticut, and this (Marquette)."
But since conference play began, Notre Dame has knocked out five ranked teams including a 20-0, then #1-ranked Syracuse (the Orange have since regained a #2 ranking).
Now brimming with confidence, the 7-3 Irish can finally afford a slip-up in league play. Staked as six-point underdogs tonight in Morgantown at the wild WVU Coliseum, a win would move the Irish firmly into the nation's Top 25 – a ridiculous notion just one month ago today or at any point since every off-season and early season break seemed to go against the gang from South Bend.
More important, a road loss tonight a quality team would barely dent Notre Dame's now-likely NCAA hopes. A the tail end of a grueling six-game stretch that began with a rare home defeat at the hands of then #16 Connecticut, the upstart Irish can finally afford a slip…not that they'll approach any game with such a mindset.
"What I really love about this group," he continued. "Is with each win, there's never been an ‘Okay, wow!' feeling. It's been, ‘Maybe we are special. Let's keep this going.'
"That's a maturity level. We had (accomplished) nowhere near anything to comprehend that in November or December."
Seniors RuleBrey's program has seen its fair share of standout seniors – the league's reigning Player of the Year, 2011 graduate Ben Hansbrough, the most recent example. His squad will encounter such a star tonight Mountaineers forward Kevin Jones.
"He would be my player of the year candidate right now. I'm very impressed with him," said Brey of the double-double machine. "As much as the numbers (20 points and 11 boards per game), I love how he leads and sets the tone when I watch him interact with his teammates. He's such a man; such a mature guy.
"The Big East has had guys have great senior years; we've had a bunch of them," Brey continued. "It's really neat about this league, I don't know what it means for the NBA, and I could care less, but we've had guys have great senior years over and over in this league and (Jones) is another one in a long line. Clutch guy, makes his teammates believe…very impressed with Kevin Jones, lot of respect for him, I'm glad he's a senior we have to get him out of the league."
Jones' classmate Darryl "Truck" Bryant is another Brey would like to see get on with his post-college career. Bryant poured in 32 points in a February 5 victory at Providence. He previously hit the Irish for 24 points last February and 17 on just nine shots in a Big East Tournament victory over Notre Dame in March 2009 as a true freshman.
"I know he's had tough nights but he's had great nights and he's played well against us," said Brey of the streaky Bryant. "Eric Atkins and Jerian (Grant) have had a lot of challenges this year and (Bryant) is yet another one. "He and Jones, you just feel like they've been around forever," Brey added with smile. "I love the seniors in our league and rotate through our league and have great senior years. Bryant and Jones are those guys. They set the tone for them and I know how they can play so fearlessly in that building and ride the momentum."
Series RundownThe Notre Dame/ West Virginia series dates back to 1969 with the Irish holding a 25-12 advantage, including a 16-8 mark in conference play (first Big East meeting was in January 1996).
Notre Dame has lost four straight in Morgantown after previously enjoying an unprecedented run of success vs. the Mountaineers (11 straight win from February 1999 through a meeting in January 2006). WVA alum and current head coach Bob Huggins is in his fifth season at the helm and has won four of six vs. Brey, who nonetheless owns a 12-5 mark all-time vs. West Virginia (4-3 in Morgantown ).
Notre Dame last won at West Virginia in January 2005 and has lost five straight to the Mountaineers in games played outside South Bend ( Morgantown or Madison Square Garden ).
The Irish and Mountaineers will tip-off in a South Bend rematch on Wednesday, February 22.
Game NotesNotre Dame is 25-7 in its last 32 Big East conference games and 18-4 in its last 22 regular season league matchups. They are a remarkable 43-6 at home over the last six seasons – the best home mark in the conference during that span.
Brey's bunch has won five games vs. the A.P. Top 25 this season, tied for most in the nation with third-ranked Ohio State .
The Defense Never Rests: Notre Dame's scoring defense ranks first in the Big East, limiting foes to just 58.3 ppg. During the team's four-game winning streak, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Marquette combined to shoot just 22 percent from beyond the arc and 34.8 percent overall. Defending the three-point line has been a mainstay for the Irish this season; they've limited 10 opponents to an aggregate 23.6 percent from long range.
Notre Dame has not allowed an individual player to hit the 20-point mark in a league game yet this season. Mountaineers senior forward Kevin Jones leads the conference with 20.8 ppg. Jones has tallied 20 or more points in nine consecutive contests.
The Irish have enjoyed 20+ point outings from seven different players this season: Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant, Jack Cooley, Alex Dragicevich, Scott Martin, and since-injured Tim Abromaitis. Mike Brey has also featured nine different starting lineups this year but has since settled on a quintet of Atkins, Grant, Connaughton, Martin and Cooley over the last six contests.
Connaughton is the reigning Big East Rookie of the Week thanks to his 23-point, 11-rebound effort in a blowout win over then #15 Marquette . As important as Connaughton's efforts in the victory over the Golden Eagles: Notre Dame assisted on 22 of its 28 made field goals.
Tip-off tonight is set for 9:00 p.m. (ET) on ESPNU.