Tip-off, Win, Repeat

Notre Dame hasn't lost since January 16 and Mike Brey is closing in on his fourth straight Big East Coach of the Year award...his players have been pretty good, too.

"We got so many young guys that they panicked. ... We're not athletic. We're probably the most non-athletic team in the league. When you're non-athletic you start taking some quick shots and all of a sudden they're running at you, you've got problems."
– West Virginia coach Bob Huggins following his team's evisceration in South Bend

Huggins biting comments are relevant for Irish fans, as his post-mortem is reminiscent of how most Notre Dame followers viewed Mike Brey's squad entering the season:

Too young, not enough athleticism, very little developed talent. No chance.

Of course, we've been proven wrong. Way wrong. Epically wrong. So wrong that predictions for the resilient Irish and their Big East and NCAA futures will likely be laughably off base. Or accidentally correct, I suppose.

Notre Dame won its 20th game last night vs. eight losses. Had you told me in late-November that the Irish would win 20, I'd have first rolled my eyes, and then wondered if a deep NIT run would provide enough games to get to that magic number.

Less than two months ago, the Irish appeared headed for a near-.500 season, just barely qualifying for the National Invitation Tournament, a post-season snore-fest to which no modern fan wants an invitation for his or her favorite team.

Critics, cynics, realists, and yes, a head coach, all thought that ignominious finish possible during the dark days of December.

"In the back of my mind," said Brey of a realistic goal following his team's repeated pre-conference beatings, "to get to the NIT."

He never told his team that, and now the 2012 season marks Brey's sixth straight 20-win campaign, tying Digger Phelps' program record set from 1976-81. Of the 20 victories, 12 have occurred vs. Big East foes including a program record nine straight (the Irish joined the Big East in 1996).

The team's 12-3 start is the best in its 17-year league history.

Adding to the remarkable turnaround is a road warrior mentality that's accompanied Brey's teams since late-season 2010. The Irish have won 12 of their last 18 Big East road games including five of seven this season and four straight.

Notre Dame has not won six Big East road tilts in a single season in its history. Games this weekend at St. John's on Saturday in Madison Square Garden, and then in D.C. vs. what will be a top 15 Georgetown team Monday night on ESPN will determine if yet another program-best is achieved.

"That's another great challenge for a team that kind of loves challenges," Brey said of the upcoming east coast trip.

All by a team that lost to Missouri by 29 (it wasn't that close), at Gonzaga by 20 (ditto), and to a terrible Georgia team on a neutral floor…and Tim Abromaitis played in that contest.

But that was then; this is now. And now the Irish sit tied for second (holding the tie-breaker) with Marquette. (The Golden Eagles incidentally travel to Morgantown for a Friday matchup with the reeling, wounded Mountaineers.)

It's unlikely, though not impossible, that first-place Syracuse could finish 0-2 with games at Connecticut and vs. Louisville.

A 3-0 finish by Notre Dame (the Irish host lowly Providence to conclude their regular season next Friday) would then tie the teams atop the standings and give the Irish the Big East regular season title due to yet another tiebreaker scenario: the Irish beat the Orange head-to-head – the only team in college basketball to do so this season.

Regardless, Brey and the Irish are well-positioned to receive a precious double bye for the Big East Tournament, finishing either second, third, or fourth...roughly eight spots higher than anyone forecasted in their pre-conference predictions.

Not all on the sidelines

Brey should win his record-tying fourth Big East Coach of the Year award and is a candidate to win a second straight National Coach of the Year honor. But he hasn't taken a charge, drilled a pressure three, or battled in the trenches for a single second this season.

"The great thing is we keep hearing all this stuff about how Coach Brey doesn't have any talent or athletes," Scott Martin offered following Wednesday's blowout. "We like that. We'll let them think that.

"Just from my perspective, I don't know if there's a better athlete than Jerian (Grant). I think Jack (Cooley) is probably one of the most underrated athletes in our league. I don't know if you've seen him jump, but he's a monster.

"We'll let people think that, we don't care" Martin added. "It works to our advantage and we'll keep going with it."

He obviously cares, as any player with athletic pride should. In fact, each member of the Irish six-man rotation likely cares about their perception from peers, because they've finally earned the right to wonder why they're constantly overlooked as basketball players.

"It's really weird. Guys like to pressure us, and Eric (Atkins) and I can handle the ball. We can get to the basket. Then the defense has to help over and guys knock down shots.

"We're a really good offensive team. Some teams play zone, others man-to-man against us but we can play a lot of different ways."

Cooley is one of the league's two best rebounders and a first-team all conference candidate; Grant is among the Big East's most versatile guards on both ends and a straight-up killer in end game situations. Atkins can lay claim to the best young point guard mantle and Martin might be the team's MVP for his defensive presence, leadership, and offensive improvement after a horrendous start.

At some point, opponents, program outsiders, die-hard fans, and local and national media alike will come full circle in their opinions of the 2012 Irish.

Until then, the undervalued group will just have to settle for winning nearly every game they play.

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