Defense Starts at Home

Mike Brey likes hearing "defending champions" attached to his basketball program. The defense of the Big East Conference Western Division crowd starts Sunday with a visit from surprising Villanova. It's the start of a grueling six-game stretch that Brey warns will require resiliency. Here's the report and check back on Friday when IrishEyes has game-by-game predictions and an overall prognosis for the Big East season.

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

January 3, 2002

Title Defense Begins
At Hoops-Mad ND

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NOTRE DAME, IN (IE) Mike Brey was asked Thursday morning if he had met Tyrone Willingham yet and what his first impressions were.

Brey, flashing a playful grin, couldn't pass up the bait.

"I did meet him for two minutes and what an impressive guy. I do think what helps him being at Stanford seven years, his adjustment here will be good," Brey said. "He's coming from one basketball school to another."

Indeed, the Joyce Center has gone hoops-mad again. The men earned their first-ever Big East Conference division title last winter and the women won the whole thing. Demand in Brey's program has grown so great that the building was sold out for Colgate – Colgate! – on Sunday with the students on break.

"If you pause a little, like I did on New Year's Day, and say ‘Where is our program?'you feel good about it," said Brey. "Certainly our record right now, the interest, the young players in the program, the young players coming. It's all positive.

"But," the coach continued, "then you get back to reality and your stomach starts bothering you because you got the Big East and a heckuva stretch coming up."

Brey's 10-2 club – with the two losses by a combined four points – opens Big East play Sunday at the Joyce Center versus Villanova, the only conference opponent the Irish have never beaten. It's the first of an exceptionally difficult six-game stretch that will clearly set the tempo for the season.

"We're in the right direction..but we have to understand what we're getting into now," said Brey. "Resiliency may be the key word for us until we get home and it's 10 o'clock Monday, January 21."

After facing Villanova, the Irish hit the road for three West Division games versus West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse. They return home on January 19 to meet powerhouse Kentucky and finish the gauntlet on Jan. 21 with Georgetown. The six teams have a combined record of 55-15, three are ranked, and there are a pair of Saturday-Monday turnarounds that leave the Irish with little time for preparation.

The Irish don't begin the stretch at full strength. Starting center Harold Swanagan is doubtful for Villanova. He hasn't run a step since spraining his ankle in the three-point loss to Alabama on Dec. 27.

"I just don't think we can count on him," said Brey. "We're going through the practices not thinking he's going to be available. We can't count on him being very productive based on how he's moving around right now."

That could pose problems Sunday since Villanova is loaded with long, athletic talent up front. Ricky Wright demolished Providence Wednesday, scoring 18 points (on seven-for-nine shooting) and securing 13 rebounds in a 76-57 Wildcat victory. Brooks Sales has been tearing up the Irish, it seems, for years and had 13 points and nine rebounds against the Friars. Villanova had an astounding 38-20 rebounding edge.

"Wright's really a heck of a player, and that's a tough match-up for us," said Brey. "That's where a Jordan Cornette with quick feet can help. We'll need Tom Timmermans, with his huge body, to lean on Wright and Sales. And then Ryan Humphrey is going to have to guard (Wright) too."

Perhaps most surprising in Villanova's performance versus Providence was steady point guard play of Derrick Snowden. Matched against John Linehan, the finest defender in the conference, Snowden had 14 points, six assists and only four turnovers.

"It was so important for Snow to play against a guy like Linehan and have a big game," said Villanova coach Jay Wright. "He's going to face another great point guard Sunday in Chris Thomas."

Wright is one of the bright young coaching stars in the Big East, having cut his teeth in the America East at Hofstra. Brey, while at Delaware, became a mentor to Wright.

"I told him all along he was a Big East guy," said Brey. "Now that he's here, I told him, ‘You take the East, we'll take the West, and let's stay out of each other's hair'."

Brey realizes full well before his team hits the road for three games that Sunday's contest has almost a "must-win" feel to it, even though Notre Dame has never been competitive in each of its league dealings with the Wildcats.

It's important for us to get this one with what's coming the following week," said Brey. "We've been in a little bit of training camp mentality and hopefully that will pay off."

If Swanagan can't go, look for Cornette to start again in the pivot alongside forwards Ryan Humphrey and David Graves. At guard, two-time Pennsylvania High School Player of the Year Matt Carroll gets his fourth shot against the hometown school and Thomas makes his long-awaited Big East debut.

"We've spent a lot of time talking these last few days, and we're getting into new territory in Big East play," said Brey. "Some of the things we got away with in November and December we won't be able to get away with now. We need to be resilient as a team and as individuals. If you don't make one (shot) before the first media timeout, don't dwell on it. It's all going to come around and balance off at the end."

On Friday, IrishEyes will present a game-by-game preview of Notre Dame's Big East season, along with our predictions.

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at Top Stories