This Would Be ND's Finest Moment

Beating UConn on Friday night at Madison Square Garden would be Notre Dame's finest achievement since joining the Big East Conference. The Huskies have owned New York the past six years and will bring 10,000 or more fans south to pack the arena. Are the Irish up to the task? Alan Tieuli reports from Gotham.

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March 8, 2002

 Huskies at Home;
Irish Are Ready

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

NEW YORK (IE) – Beating Connecticut in the semifinals Friday night of the Big East Tournament would be Notre Dame’s greatest basketball accomplishment since joining the conference in 1996.

It’s not that the Irish are enormous underdogs. It’s not that the they haven’t had wins of considerable import in their conference dealings – including a stunner over then No. 2 UConn at the Hartford Civic Center on Jan. 5, 2000. Heck, the Domers even won a conference division title last season.  But this is Friday Night at Madison Square Garden. They’ll be 19,528 in the house, and at least 10,000 of those will have driven south on 1-95 wearing Husky red, white and blue.  Win here and you are legitimately for real.

This will much more of a home game for Connecticut than it was for St. John’s on Thursday. The Huskies have owned this conference, and this building, the last 10 years and their fans know it. Head coach Jim Calhoun doesn’t treat this get-together as a warm-up for the NCAA Tournament. He knows how important it is to maintain conference superiority. Does Notre Dame have any idea what this game means?

"I think so," Athletic Director Kevin White told IrishEyes Thursday night. "Getting to the semifinals here is a big step, a huge step, when you think about what they’ve done the last two years in the Big East. Everybody at Notre Dame is supportive of this team and proud of what it has accomplished."

Beating Connecticut in this setting Friday will truly re-classify Notre Dame as a true heavyweight in the Big East. Getting to the semifinals is one thing. Beating UConn to move on once there is another.

Since joining the Big East, the Irish are 56-64 in regular season conference games. Connecticut is 86-34 – 30 games better – in that same time frame. The Huskies won the conference tournament in 1996, 1998 and 1999 and lost in the 2000 final. The Huskies are 13-3 at MSG in March during that time span. Notre Dame won its second conference tournament game period Thursday.

"It’s definitely the up-and-coming against the champions," said David Graves. "But I like our chances."

It worked for the women last year.  Ruth Riley and company got the Connecticut monkey off their back in the regular season then rode that momentum all the way to the NCAA Tournament title.  That probably isn't going to happen here, but the same principle applies.  You want to be something in Big East circles?  You need to beat Connecticut in a game that matters.

The signs are there for a turnaround, at least this year. Prior to hiring Mike Brey, Notre Dame was 2-12 in Big East regular season play against teams that went on to win 13 or more regular season conference games. (Connecticut went 13-3 this year.) Brey has gone 3-0 in such scenarios, beating 13-3 Boston College last year and 13-3 Pittsburgh twice this season.

This point is not lost on White, the man responsible for signing Brey’s pay checks.

"Our coaching staff, in particular Mike, has provided strong and determined leadership," said White. "He’s taken this to the next level. And it says everything about these kids. They are wonderful ambassadors for this University and they love the game they play. They are savoring the moment."

Connecticut is supremely talented, a blend of power, speed and grace expertly coached by Calhoun, Dave Leito and George Blaney, two former Division 1 head coaches. But all of its studs are freshmen and sophomores – including the gifted sophomore Caron Butler, silky smooth freshman guard Ben Gordon, sophomore point guard Taliek Brown and Emeka Okafor, the best shot-blocker in the college game. Notre Dame, of course, starts three seniors (Graves, Ryan Humphrey, Harold Swanagan) and a junior (Matt Carroll) and that group scored 58 of the 83 points versus St. John’s, shooting a collective 19-for-32 from the field with 30 rebounds, 10 assists, six blocks and five steals.

"I just told our seniors ‘Let’s have our program take another step’," Brey said following the victory Thursday. "We have a hecukva a challenge facing Connecticut, but why not win? It’s great that this program is back on the map."

Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese once noted to IrishEyes that one of the most attractive options that came with the Irish joining the Big East was the possibility of "a Friday night semifinal doubleheader in the conference tournament with Notre Dame in it. Wouldn’t that be special?"

That night has come.

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THE NOTEBOOK: For those of you have had issues with Mike Jarvis the past three seasons – stemming from his Troy Murphy to the NBA comment in 2000 – you may want to download from the New York Post web site Friday’s back page. A color photo of Thomas and Carroll hounding Marcus Hatten with the heading "DEAD STORM."….. Friday morning, ESPN and The Big East Conference hosted the media at an advance screening of ESPN’s Season On The Brink, scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Sunday. We normally don’t review movies in this spot, so two words can suffice. Don’t bother…..If ESPN is serious about making movies, it would be best served to consider taking on another John Feinstein work The Last Amateurs. Speaking of which, Holy Cross meets American for the Patriot League title today on ESPN at 4:30 and Notre Dame Director of Men’s Basketball Operations Rod Balanis will sneak more than an occasional peak. He was an assistant in the Patriot at Colgate for four years. "It’s a special conference," Balanis told IrishEyes this week. "The kids, the stories, the travel, it’s all genuine stuff. And John Feinstein’s book was a great read. It was dead on accurate."….It’s been 55 degrees and clear the past two days in New York but, alas, point guard Chris Thomas has been foiled in his tireless quest to meet Julia Roberts…..Torrian Jones did an exceptional job Thursday night down low in Notre Dame’s 2-3 zone. Long and athletic, he can jump out to contest a shot and then take off the other way for quick turnaround baskets that Brey adores…..Dan Miller made the trip to New York and it got us thinking about next year’s starting line-up. How about Thomas, Carroll, Miller, Torin Francis and Rick Cornett. First subs could be Jones (for Francis), Chris Quinn (for Thomas or Carroll), Jordan Cornette (for Francis) and Tom Timmermans (for Cornette). A very different team.

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes and can be reached at aatandsonspr@aol.com)


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