Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com
February 9, 2002
Irish Find Their Way
In Post-Murphy Era
By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service
WASHINGTON, D.C. (IE) If youre going to pick a city to have a coming out party, it might as well be this one.
Last season, Mike Breys first as head coach, Notre Dame brought a three-game winning streak into the MCI Center. The Irish emerged with a convincing 78-71 victory that paved the way to the squads West Division title in the Big East Conference.
History is repeating itself. The Irish are 17-6 overall and winners of five straight following the epic, four-overtime, 116-111 victory over the Hoyas on Saturday. At the end of Sundays conference play, they will be all alone in second-place, tied for first in the loss column.
But theres one big difference between this years team and last. No Troy Murphy. The two-time Big East Player of the Year left school a year early and is enduring growing pains with the Golden State Warriors. His teammates havent had time for the pain.
"Nobody thought we had a chance at the start of the season," said guard Matt Carroll, beaming after a career-high 30 point effort versus the Hoyas. "Troy was a great player, but no-one seemed to notice what we had coming back."
Without Murphy, the Irish were chosen by the conference coaches to finish fourth in the West Division. When they lost their opener at home to Villanova, the home faithful at the Joyce Center figured that was about right. When Notre Dame was blasted by pre-season division favorite Georgetown, 83-73, on January 21, the outlook was even bleaker.
"After they beat us up in South Bend, we talked about blocking out as our defensive key," said Brey. "We won five in a row now with that as the key."
Easier said than done. But at Notre Dame Brey has had the magic touch. Somehow the Irish managed to outrebound Georgetown Saturday, 64-54, with a frontline that includes Harold Swanagan, Tom Timmermans and Jordan Cornette. They were giving up inches, talent and reputation to Mike Sweetney, Wesley Wilson, Gerald Riley and Harvey Thomas.
Then, of course, there is Ryan Humphrey, who secured 14 rebounds Saturday and had the poise and discipline on defense to play 35 consecutive minutes without a foul. The jumping jack going that long resisting the urge to send a shot into the eighth row may be the most amazing fact of them all from Saturday.
With that type of inside work, its not surprising then that Matt Carroll (career high 30 on Saturday) and David Graves have become productive on the perimeter. Carroll is 24-for-46 the last four games, Graves 25-for-53.
"This was a big win for a lot of people," said Graves. "It says we are back again. It says the way we are doing things works."
And that includes a game plan that has Graves coming off the bench. The senior captain has taken one for the team for the second year in a row and its paying off. Torrian Jones provides a defensive presence early and Graves comes in firing. The Irish have outscored their opposition, 200-153, in the first-half since the change.
Whats more, the Irish are tough mentally. Their 4-1 record on the road is the best in the Big East.
"We are doing the things that make us attractive to the NCAA selection committee," said Brey.
More important, perhaps, the Irish are doing the things that are attractive to a basketball purist. They play a team game built on defense, rebounding and efficient distribution of the ball.
CONSIDER THEM IN?: With a 17-6 overall record and six games remaining (three home, three away) you have to figure it would be a major disappointment if the Irish dont make the NCAA Tournament.
If the Irish just win their home games they will finish 10-6 in the Big East, 20-9 overall. Teams that win 20 and lose less than 10 from the Big East Conference are usually golden when it comes to at-large selections. You have to go all the way back to 1981 (Connecticut, 20-9) to find such a squad that did not qualify.
So you can feel fairly confident in making reservations for Chicago the second weekend in March. The NCAA would prefer to place the Irish there for the first- and second-rounds.
NOTEBOOK FROM A CLASSIC: Graves beat No. 4 Ohio State with a buzzer shot. He also had a last second game winner against Seton Hall. He tipped the basketball away from Troy Bell last season to preserve a come-from-behind win over No. 9 Boston College. All of those take a back seat now. "Ohio State, flush it. Seton Hall, flush it," Graves said Saturday. "This game was phenomenal." .Jack Lorri, voice of the Irish on radio for 33 years, put Saturdays game on a similar level with the 1974 UCLA contest (71-70 Joyce Center victory, No. 1 vs. No. 2) and the 2000 upset of defending national champion Connecticut in Hartford. "Those are the games that stand out for me," he said. "This game had the same type of emotion." Lorri was proud of his line regarding Chris Thomas 60-minute performance. "It was a Mike Wallace game," he beamed Georgetown coach Craig Esherick genuinely did a double-take in South Bend when he noticed that Thomas turned the ball over three times in 40 minutes against his team. Saturday, Thomas turned the ball over once in the final 40 minutes of play. And, then he set a new record for humility in assessing his play. "All my turnovers came in the first-half," he said. "If I could have limited those and maybe we could have won it earlier." .IrishEyes agrees with Brey. There should be no question that Thomas is Big East Rookie of the Year. Can he be All-Big East first team? Thats a bit dicey. You have to figure Mike Sweetney (Georgetown), Caron Butler (Connecticut), Preston Shumpert (Syracuse) are gimmes. It becomes a scrum down the stretch for the remaining spots with these players: Thomas, Humphrey, Miamis John Salmons and Darius Rice, BCs Bell, Providences John Linehan, Brandin Knight of Pittsburgh. Who would you choose of those seven for the remaining two (or probably three) spots? Let IrishEyes know at firstname.lastname@example.org .Thomas has played 411 minutes in 10 Big East games, an incredible average of 41.1 minutes per game. He has gone the distance in seven of 10 conference games. And you thought Martin Ingelsby never left the floor? Moose "only" averaged 37.4 minutes per contest last year .Hats off to Timmermans for hanging in there despite missing two point-blank shots in regulation and the first overtime that could have won the game earlier for Notre Dame. "I had kind of a bad angle on the second one," he said. "But I kept my head and kept playing." The sophomore walked away from the game amazed at the talent of Sweetney, who became the first player in Big East history (35 points, 20 rebounds) to post a 30-20 game. "Hes such a big guy, it is amazing the strength he has," Timmermans said For the third straight year, the MCI Center sounded like the Joyce Center in the second-half. "That was the best part of the game to me," said Graves. "One side of the building was Lets go Irish. The other side was Lets Go Hoyas. It was like a tournament game." .Humphrey made seven of his last nine free throws in the game and asked a personal favor later. "Get (student manager) Malcolm Farmer in there," Humphrey said. "Hes the one out there helping me with my free throws every day." Farmer is perhaps Humphreys closest friend and confidant associated with the team .Dont look now, but Thursdays game at Rutgers may be all that stands between the Irish and another eight-game winning streak, duplicating last years amazing run. ND will be favored in home games versus Syracuse (Feb. 17) and West Virginia (Feb. 20). If the Irish can do that, in this balanced Big East, consider Brey neck-in-neck with Pittsburgh's Ben Howland for Coach of the Year in the Big East.
(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at email@example.com)