'Defending Champs' Has a Nice Ring to It

Notre Dame's men's basketball team today was picked to finish third in the West Division of the Big East Conference. The Irish captains, however, wore a fashion accessory that let everyone know who are the current defending champions. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports from Big East Media Day at Madison Square Garden.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com™

October 24, 2001

Defending Champions
Has a Nice Ring for Irish

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NEW YORK (IE) – There was jewelry being flashed in virtually every corner of the Madison Square Garden Theatre late this morning.

Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun wore his 1999 NCAA champion ring. Gary Waters, the new head man at Rutgers, displayed the conference title ring he earned last year at Kent State. Villanova's first-year mentor, Jay Wright, bore a bauble signifying a championship season at Hofstra.

Normally, a fashion statement like this is a bit ostentatious for Mike Brey, who prefers to keep his title rings from Duke and Delaware in a display case at his Granger home. "I never wear a ring (from a previous season) after September 1," he said. "I want to get hungry to get another one."

But, on this special trip to midtown Manhattan for Big East Conference Media Day, Brey made an exception. The head coach and his three senior captains – David Graves, Harold Swanagan and Ryan Humphrey – all accessorized with their 2001 Big East Conference West Division title rings.

"I'm sort of waving mine in people's faces," Graves laughed. "We're champions, we have to have a little swagger."

According to the Big East coaches, however, Notre Dame's reign atop the West will be a short one. The Irish were picked a distant third – without receiving a first-place vote – behind Georgetown and Syracuse in the pre-season poll. By total points, combining the two divisions, the Irish were deemed to be only the sixth best team in the Big East Conference.

"It's understandable," Brey said. "When you've been in the doldrums, and you've been the whipping boy of the league until two years ago, there is no question there is some skepticism. I know people are thinking ‘Are they for real?'

"We're not in the Big East corridor, we have to fight a little harder for attention," he continued. "But this is important – nationally we are back on the map. We're thought of as a national player, and we're going to continue that way."  Brey's statement is based on a phenomenal recruiting season that netted Torrin Francis and Rick Cornett, both judged to be top 50 players.

After having Troy Murphy earn back-to-back Player of the Year honors, the Irish were virtually shut-out of pre-season individual player recognition. Only Humphrey deserved second team All-Big East honors. In a mild surprise, West Virginia point guard Jonathan Hargett was voted by the coaches as the pre-season Rookie of the Year, edging the Irish's Chris Thomas.

Of course, none of this meant anything to the confident Humphrey, who doesn't say much, but packs every word with meaning.

"We're going to the NCAA Tournament," he told IrishEyes flatly. "We're a different, more exciting team. There will be an air of excitement about us."

Defending Big East Tournament champion Boston College is the pre-season choice to win the East, and its junior standout Troy Bell earned pre-season Player of the Year honors. Caron Butler of Connecticut, Kevin Braswell of Georgetown, Miami's Darius Rice, Providence's John Linehan and Preston Shumpert of Syracuse join Bell on the all-Big East first team.

"We were third and BC was fifth last year in the pre-season poll," reminded Brey, "and look how that turned out."

Understandably, however, the Irish traveling party – which also included Athletic Director Dr. Kevin White – had more than basketball on its mind. It was the first trip for any of them to New York City since the September 11 terrorist attacks.

"On the cab ride (from LaGuardia Airport) we spent maybe two minutes talking about where we were picked and 20 minutes talking about the tragedy," said Brey. "Your sense of urgency in the city is heightened, to say the least."

Graves noted how Pittsburgh International Airport – a staple connection spot for the Irish from South Bend on USAirways – was a "ghost town."

"You're humbled by it all, you can't put it into words," said Graves. "We've been to New York a lot the last three years, but everything has changed now. I got to be honest, it's nerve-wracking to a degree to be in the city."

Humphrey had a unique perspective, having grown up in Tulsa and having closely experienced the Oklahoma City bombing and its aftermath.

"People in Oklahoma City are just starting now to recover," he said. "This is far worse in its magnitude. It will take many, many years before this city will fully recover, if ever. But it's also a shame that it took something like this to bring our nation together."

Making a challenging season even more mentally and physically demanding, Notre Dame plays an inordinate (particularly for a power team from a strong conference) number of games on the road in 2001-02. The Irish have an ocean-crossing trip to Hawaii, non-conference flights to New Orleans and Buffalo and, of course, eight Big East road games. In all, 16 of Notre Dame's 29 games are on the road.

To ease the travel burden, Brey noted that Notre Dame might be taking more charter flights this year.

"It's important to think about chartering, particularly on the front-end (of a trip) because you want to be physically and mentally ready to compete," said Brey. "You don't want to worry about delays, cancelled flights and the like. Kevin (White) has been great in understanding that we need to work in more charters on the road."

Brey has not specifically addressed travel with his team but plans to do so before the Irish depart for the Hawaii Pacific Thanksgiving Classic.

"I just put my faith it in God's hands," said Humphrey. "He has a purpose and knew Sept. 11 was going to happen before it happened. So I'm not going to lose sleep about the future."


IRISH NOTEBOOK: Swanagan, down to a svelte 245 pounds, credits a month-long trip he took the United Kingdom this summer. "I couldn't eat the foods I normally eat," said Swanagan who, like many who have traveled overseas, was not enamored with the staples of a British diet. "I was on basically a chicken and pasta diet. But when I got back I was in good shape and (strength and conditioning coach) Tony Rolinski put me on a program that got me in the best shape of my life. I'm ready to have a big year." The senior was in London at the urging of his sociology professor. "He told me to take advantage of the opportunity to take some classes over there, get some credits, and get away from the daily pressures here. It was the best thing I ever did."…….Swanagan has looked solid in pre-season workouts and IrishEyes has compared him to St. John's under-sized center Anthony Glover. "I like that," Swanagan smiled. "I admire Anthony Glover. He comes to play every game and battles against players five and six inches taller. That's motivation for me."……..Graves raved about the progress Jere Macura has made in pre-season workouts……Brey said he has had to discipline himself when it comes to teaching freshman point guard Chris Thomas. "I have to remind myself to let him be daring," said Brey. "He's a better player and we'll be a better team when he is daring. Will he throw some two rows over my head in the stands? Sure, but that's a risk worth taking."…….West Virginia coac

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