Football Feel on Hardwood

There's a lunch at the Joyce Center on Friday featuring the coach and players. Students will be in line hours before the start of the game. The contest is on national television. But the ball is round and it bounces true. Basketball is alive at Notre Dame, and it's up to the Irish to maintain the interest. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports from campus.

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January 17, 2002

Football Feel
On Campus For ’Cats

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NOTRE DAME, Ind. (IE) – Is this a football weekend?

Friday at noon Mike Brey and several of his players will be featured at a special luncheon at the Joyce Center. Tickets are moving briskly. Students will begin lining up Friday night for prime standing room (they won’t be seated, folks) to Saturday’s noon tip versus Kentucky. Wednesday night, Craig Kilborn’s irreverent late night show on CBS featured a prolonged preview of the game.

"I was shocked," said forward David Graves.

Basketball, it appears, is back at Notre Dame. Now it’s up to the Irish to maintain the interest.

"We have a couple of games coming up that can definitely put us on the map," said Brey. "We need to take care of business to show that we are a program that is here to stay."

The 12-4 Irish host No. 12 Kentucky (10-4) on Saturday, then they line up against hot Georgetown on Monday in a pivotal Big East Conference game. It’s still early, but a sweep of the two games would go a long way to assuring Notre Dame a return trip to the NCAA Tournament.

No-one wants to consider two losses.

"I never think about losses," said freshman point guard Chris Thomas, getting ready for the two biggest games of his collegiate career. "But to show we are for real, we do need to get these games."

Notre Dame needs to win at least one, and IrishEyes feels the most important of the two is the Kentucky game.

Kentucky is the Montreal Canadiens and New York Yankees of college basketball, they have been since the days of Adolph Rupp, with the tradition nicely maintained by Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino and now Tubby Smith, national championship coaches all.  Beat the Wildcats and everyone (and everything) takes notice, from the humans that sit on the NCAA Selection Committee to the emotionless chips and bits that formulate the RPI.

Beat Georgetown at home and it’s just a nice conference victory.

"You live for the big games, and Kentucky doesn’t get any bigger," said power forward Ryan Humphrey, who will be watched from press row by up to a dozen NBA scouts Saturday, particularly after his 13-for-21 performance at Syracuse Monday.

Discounting Indiana and Big East opposition, Notre Dame has not hosted an opponent with the marquee appeal of Kentucky since facing UCLA on Dec. 20, 1995. The wheels were off the John MacLeod era at that point and the home team lost, 83-58. The year before, Kentucky blitzed the Irish here, 97-58.

"We made the NCAA Tournament last year, and that was nice," said Brey. "But a lot of people still remember Notre Dame in the 1990’s. Winning (versus Kentucky) would indicate we are on our way back to where we should be."

Leave it to Notre Dame hoops guru Louie Somogyi to find historical significance with the game. Saturday is 28 years to the day of Notre Dame’s most famous basketball victory ever – 71-70 over No. 1 UCLA. While the match-up with Kentucky hardly holds that level of national interest or significance, there’s no denying its importance.

"We need to prove we belong," said center Harold Swanagan, who, like his teammate Graves, will be playing with extra motivation and his former childhood idols. "Beating the Wildcats is something I always wanted to do. I’ve been waiting a long time for (this game)."

And, let’s face it, the Irish need a major scalp. Beating Pittsburgh last Saturday (No. 30 in the RPI) was a start. But here are the RPI’s of Notre Dame’s other 11 victims – 246, 291, non Div. 1, 111, 169, 282, 155, 129, 289, 205, and 139. Kentucky is currently No. 11 in the RPI.

"One of the criteria the (NCAA selection) committee looks for is, ‘Can they win on the road?’’’ said Brey. "We’ve proven we can do that, with 11 games of 16 to date away from home. Now we need to be able to defend our home court against the best."

On a hardwood level, this is like Notre Dame hosting Nebraska in football in the second game of the 2000 season. If the Irish had won that game, Bob Davie might still be the man in charge.

Brey’s job is hardly in jeopardy, but he can dramatically speed up the progress of his program by getting the job done Saturday.

More on this match-up Friday as IrishEyes is on campus for the biggest hoops weekend in years.

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