Big East Unforgiving to Youth

With eight days and three games left in Notre Dame's regular seasons, here in its entirety is IrishEyes' Big East Conference preview. It initially ran on January 4 for IrishEyes subscribers only. Will the Irish finish strong and get their second straight NCAA Tournament bid? Stay with IrishEyes all this week as we provide on-the-beat coverage.

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January 4, 2002

Toughest Courses
Still Ahead for Irish

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NOTRE DAME, IN (IE) – By the time it begins Big East Conference play on Sunday at the Joyce Center, Notre Dame's men's basketball team will have conducted approximately 45 practices. It will have competed in 12 non-conference tilts and two exhibitions. The Irish will have endured injuries and suspensions to starters.

With all of that in the past, here's the advice coach Mike Brey gave to his freshman point guard Chris Thomas this week. "You haven't seen anything yet."

You may think you know what type of basketball team Notre Dame has, but we won't really find out what the Irish are made of until at least January 21, if not later. The Big East is normally an unforgiving beast, particularly for teams who have freshmen as their catalysts.

"Things we have gotten away with to date," said Brey, "we will not be able to in the Big East. Especially this year."

Notre Dame begins its seventh season in the Big East looking to defend its 2000-01 West Division title. With a glittery 10-2 non-conference record, you may feel the Irish are poised to make another run. Perhaps they can, but a lot of it will depend on the success of Thomas and recent history doesn't bode well for high-profile freshmen in the conference.

The last three Big East Rookies of the Year – Seton Hall's Eddie Griffin, Boston College's Troy Bell and Troy Murphy – played for teams that finished below .500 in conference play (16-34 combined records, in fact). The last four years, only seven of the 20 players named All-Rookie participated in the NCAA Tournament.

Don't be fooled by a good start. You only to look at the dossiers of Griffin, St. John's Omar Cook and Connecticut's Caron Butler last year to understand how tough this conference is. Griffin helped Seton Hall burst out to a 9-2 non-conference start and a top 15 rating, both of which were long forgotten after the Pirates endured a dissension-riddled 5-11 Big East season. Cook and St. John's beat Kentucky in the season-opener, routed Michigan and got off to a 5-1 Big East start. Then the Johnnies lost at Virginia Tech, Cook started forcing the offense, and Mike Jarvis' team found itself outside of post-season play completely with a 14-15 record. Butler led Connecticut in minutes and scoring during an 11-1 start, including a victory over Arizona. But then the Huskies slipped to 8-8 in league play and did not qualify for the NCAA's for the first time since 1997.

All of that is why Brey is being very realistic as he approaches this title defense season.

"You look at the West Division, it's wide open," said Brey. "A record of11-5 won the West last year. I asked the kids, ‘Do you think 9-7 could win it this year? Do you think 8-8 with a tiebreaker?' When you look at the teams right now, it's crazy.

"Our focus is still trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament," Brey continued. "You want to play for one of the two byes in the West. That certainly puts you in position to get your bid."

There's experience aplenty of this Notre Dame squad, but it's clearly Thomas' team. He is the one player the Irish absolutely cannot afford to lose, much like Martin Ingelsby last year. But don't expect too much too soon.

Seniors frontcourters Ryan Humphrey, David Graves and Harold Swanagan are the physical and emotional glue of the club, and Brey has been extremely impressed to date by Graves.

"David is in unbelievable condition. Last year he was a little bit of a dough boy, this year he's a stud," said Brey. "He can run all day. When he played 40 minutes those two games (Miami and Alabama), he wasn't fazed at all."

Brey is pleased with the leader Humphrey has become – "on the bus, on the practice floor, in the locker-room and in the games. I'm proud of his development there and I told him." Swanagan is simply the most improved player on the team. In pre-season he looked to be an Anthony Glover play-alike. Now he seems to be better.

Though junior Matt Carroll struggled with his shot in December, he's one player that truly has adopted Brey's demand for "resiliency." His offensive game will come around.

Without question, Brey will churn a lot of minutes in conference play with his starters, though it looks like freshman Jordan Cornette will likely start for the ailing Swanagan on Sunday versus Villanova. The versatile Torrian Jones, right now, appears to be the only other player on the bench who will get consistent minutes. Not that this is Brey's choice. He clearly wants – and probably needs – Tom Timmermans and Jere Macura to step up in practice and earn minutes up front. Rebounding remains the team's main sore spot.


THE BIG EAST: Can Notre Dame defend its title? IrishEyes has identified four distinct "chapters" to the conference season. Will there be a happy ending?

Chapter One: (Six games -- Villanova, at West Virginia, at Pittsburgh, at Syracuse, Kentucky, Georgetown): An absolutely brutal stretch to start the season, including a pair of Saturday-Monday turnarounds. The Irish have never beaten Villanova. West Virginia and Pittsburgh are much improved and both lost at home to ND last year and will be looking for revenge. There's no-one to guard Preston Shumpert at the Carrier Dome. Then, if the Irish are not emotionally or physically spent meeting Kentucky, they have to try and deal with a Georgetown team that may have the conference's best NBA prospect in Mike Sweetney.

Chapter Two: (Four games -- Seton Hall, Pittsburgh, at Seton Hall, Rutgers): This is a four-game winning streak waiting to happen. The Pirates remain dysfunctional on the floor, with too many point guards and not enough up-front smarts. There's no excuse for losing to Pittsburgh at home, particularly if the Irish will be looking to get even for a loss to the Panthers 18 days earlier. Rutgers is not ready to beat a Big East contender on the road, though the Scarlet Knights did scare mighty Virginia in Charlottesville.

Chapter Three: (Four games -- at Georgetown, at Rutgers, Syracuse, West Virginia): A very challenging stretch with four games in 12 days. The Irish will likely be going with a short-bench by this time and could be tired. Can ND win for a third straight year at the MCI Center? That would be quite a coup. By Valentine's Day, Gary Waters – an exceptional coach should have Rutgers very dangerous at home, and the RAC is a beehive of noise when the Scarlet Knights are playing hard. The Syracuse nationally-televised game on Feb. 17 could be for first-place and, if so, the West Virginia home contest just three days later is a classic let-down spot against a dangerous team.

Chapter Four: (Three games -- at Miami, at St. John's, Providence): Who knows what Miami team we'll see in late February but right now, WOW. There is no more athletic team in the conference and Darius Rice is a Player of the Year candidate. The good news is that the Hurricanes still play off-campus in a crummy downtown arena and have no homecourt edge. St. John's visits Duke the Sunday before Notre Dame and may have nothing left in its tank. The Providence game is troublesome because John Linehan could shut down Thomas and it's the last home game for Graves, Humphrey and Swanagan. Virginia coach Pete Gillen says it best about such occasions: "The kids have tears in their eyes and have trouble seeing the ball and running the floor." ND lost in such a setting last year for Ingelsby.

IrishEyes' prediction:

Chapter One: 2-4 (2-3 in Big East); Chapter Two: 4-0; Chapter Three: 2-2; Chapter Four: 1-2. Final Record: 9-7 in Big East Conference (third in West behind Syracuse and Georgetown); 19-10 overall, at-large berth in NCAA Tournament hinging on a victory or two in Big East Tournament.

Final word: Thomas will be to Notre Dame next season what Bell is to Boston College now.

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