Irish Brace For Cameron Crazies

Home court advantage takes on new meaning Saturday afternoon in Durham.

They won't throw Twinkies -- that happened to Georgia Tech's rotund three-point marksman Dennis Scott back in a 1990 thriller.

They won't toss headphones (no alleged thieves on the Irish roster a la North Carolina State's Chris Washburn in 1986), nor will they chant "Freeze! Police!" a fate that befell Maryland's Adrian Branch after a brush with the law.

But make no mistake, Duke's infamous, impressive, and oh-so-aggressive student body has a plan for Notre Dame's players (the guess is Jerian Grant) and perhaps former Blue Devils assistant coach Mike Brey.

The one thing I said last night was, I'm really thrilled for this group to get to play in this venue. the ultimate road venue," said Brey of Duke's renowned Cameron Indoor Stadium. "We have to remember to stay in character and do what we do."

What they do is shoot well and score, better than any team in the nation, statistically. That skill set will have to be on full display on Coach K Court, the hallowed hardwood on which the Blue Devils have prevailed in 219 of 234 outings since the court's rededication for the 2000-01 season, a mark that includes undefeated home slates in four of the last six seasons, and a ludicrous 121 wins in their last 127 games played.

"Obviously Cameron Indoor is a place you see on TV growing up. Revered, a lot of history," said Irish sophomore swingman Steve Vasturia. "You try to go in there and accept the challenge. It's going to be a tough environment. I think you have to enjoy it and try to get the win. It'd be a great feeling."

Vasturia's classmate Demetrius Jackson believes he knows what to expect, after all, he's seen the same greeting for opponents throughout his basketball viewing life.

"The fans with the (screaming, one arm extended, wiggling fingers) when the ball is out of bounds. I've seen so many of their games on TV, just looking forward to having fun," Jackson said. "I expect it to be a fun atmosphere. Our guys really like playing on the road. It's a blessing to be able to play in that place."

Blessings and bucket list destinations aside, a road game at Duke is of added significance this season because both teams matter, a reality that hasn't been present in Durham since a 1986 meeting between the schools, one won 75-74 on a last second blocked shot by Duke's Player of the Year Johnny Dawkins vs. Notre Dame legend David Rivers.

Saturday, Duke is No. 4, Notre Dame No. 10, the Irish a full game -- plus a head-to-head-win -- ahead of Duke in the ACC standings.

"I'm just thrilled this team has put themselves in a position for a marquee game in that environment," said Brey. "They'll be really excited to play. I just don't want them to get too revved up. I think what happens in that place a lot of times, and I witnessed it from the home bench, is teams will get a little out of character or play too fast because of the crowd. Overall we've done a pretty good job in loud atmospheres of staying poised."

Marquette's Bradley Center, North Carolina's Dean Dome, Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center, and Louisville's new KFC YUM! Center each rank among Brey's runner-up choices for toughest venues he's encountered.

That quartet plus a surprise entry, North Carolina State's PNC Center, made the list.

"I tell you what, NC State has got a heck of an environment," said Brey. "I knew Reynolds (the Wolfpack's home prior to 1999), so I knew their fan base was rabid. They just moved them in and did a great job of putting the students close to the court."

That's the situation that faces Notre Dame Saturday as well. The students -- few in number, but by no means short on intensity and focus -- are strategically placed on top of their foes.

At least it seems that way.

"It's probably the intimacy of it. They're really close, the sidelines." said Irish assistant coach Anthony Solomon, a veteran visitor to Cameron during his playing days at Virginia. "They're close to being able to touch you. Certainly they're loud. Not the largest arena (9,314), but they're close by and they fill it up. It's to the rafters.

"Regardless of the size sometimes, when you see that the area is filled to the top, it certainly sends a different message. It's a very creative student body as it's always been, and they're into their team. And they do a great job of cheering and supporting."

And deriding. A February 1992 Notre Dame visit included foul trouble from both Joe and Jon Ross, twin Irish backup big men that found their way back to the bench in the midst of a blowout loss.

Even up 30, the Cameron Crazies relished the chance to stay involved. "Just like your brother! Just like your brother!" they chanted.

"We have to manage the things we can control between the lines and let them do what they do," said Solomon. "Certainly it's a different environment but one we're looking forward to."

Coupled with the environment, the opponent ranks as the toughest task facing the Irish this season. Notre Dame's 77-73 win over the Blue Devils 10 days ago in South Bend ensures both the stands -- and the on court hosts -- will be fully focused on the upstart visitors.

A win Saturday would cement Notre Dame among the nation's top six to seven squads -- likely move them to a No. 2 seed line on the ever-evolving NCAA Tournament Bracketology.

And it would cement a rarity in college basketball and a definitive first at the program: a 3-0 mark visiting Tobacco Road.

"It'd be really powerful, man," said Brey of the potential for wins at North Carolina (71-70), North Carolina State (81-78 in OT), and Duke. "For us to get two of 'em already -- if you got three, that'd be extremely powerful. They're already talking about us a lot down there on Tobacco Road because of who we've beaten in the Triangle, but that would add to it."

It would add to their resume, their national status, and notch another first as well.

No Notre Dame team has ever won in Durham (0-6, the last loss coming in an unexpected 1994 nail-biter). And despite a two-game winning streak, the Irish are 4-19 as a program vs. Duke.

But those tangents and stories are for fans and media, not the game's combatants.

"Once the ball is tipped it's just like playing another game," said Vasturia. "We've had a lot of experience in tough places. We have veteran guys. We'll settle down and are used to it."


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