Irish Eyes Covers Basketball?

Darned right it does, and it's just about time to get serious about it. Football is ending, and basketball conference play is about to start. Great inter-conference games are great for bragging rights, but a few big games interspersed among the patsies aren't a test of a team's mettle. The game-in, game-out grind of conference play will tell us which teams are truly good.

After starting with modest expectations, Notre Dame Basketball fans are rightfully excited. The Irish have impressive victories over Maryland in Washington D.C. and highly regarded Alabama at the Joyce Center. They were not flukes. This is a different team than the ones we've watched in recent years. It's faster, quicker, more athletic, and better on defense. ND pushes the ball up court, moves the ball in half court offense, and has post scoring threats to go with its outside shooters.

The Big East is down after spending the last two seasons in the argument about which conference is best, and the Irish have a more favorable schedule than they've had in recent seasons; but you'd be mistaken to think the conference schedule will be ND's cake walk to the NCAA Tournament. Even against mediocre teams, Big East road victories are gold. The top teams struggle against the lesser teams a few times a year, especially on the road. Don't get nutty if that happens to our beloved Irish a few times.

What about the conference? Who is good, and who isn't?

I haven't seen everyone yet, but I have some thoughts:

Top of the conference – Pitt, UConn, Marquette, and Georgetown

Pittsburgh has lost twice to good teams. Nevertheless, the Panthers are solid at all positions. They play good defense, rebound well, and easily fall into the upper third of the conference on offense. Center Aaron gray is the best player, but Lavance Fields, Ronald Ramone, Antonio Graves, and Levon Kendall are experienced and good.

UConn is young, but talented. The Huskies star-studded roster was gutted last spring; but Calhoun has recruited well, and he and his staff are good coaches. UConn may start slowly, but it will contend for the conference championship when all is said and done. Jeff Adrien is UConn's most experienced starter, but there are a lot of interesting players on the roster, especially 7-foot-3 center Hasheem Thabeet.

Marquette has the best guards in the conference – Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, and Wesley Matthews. On the surface, the front line is not impressive, and the lack of consistent scoring from the post will be a problem for the Warriors. However, MU's big men defend well and are tough on the boards. Marquette will win 10 or more games.

Georgetown is hard to figure, but the Hoyas ought to be good. The top players have returned from last season's NCAA team, and the freshmen are highly regarded. Yet GU has non-conference losses to Duke, Oregon, and Old Dominion. Scoring is the issue. If an opponent can take one of the three scorers - Hibbert, Wallace, and Sapp - out of the game it will win.

Middle of the pack – Villanova, DePaul, Louisville, West Virginia, Syracuse, St. John's, Providence, and Cincinnati

This is the group that will decide the conference championship... not among themselves, but by the damage they do to others. Each team has one or two good-to-great players to go with its fatal flaws. The top team that has the fewest upset losses to these teams will win the conference.

Bottom of the conference – Rutgers, Seton Hall, and South Florida

They're still challenging road games.

Aren't you forgetting a team?

Of course I'm not. You want to know where do the Fighting Irish fit into the mix, don't you?

December's performance should leave them considered among the top teams, but I'll put them into the middle of the pack until I see Mike Brey continue to play nine players every game, until I see consistent low post scoring in conference games, and until I see the guys playing key roles for the first time adapt to the rigors of Conference play. The first five games - Louisville at home in front of a sparse crowd (no students and the Sugar Bowl drawing Irish fans' attention), at Georgetown, West Virginia at home - will tell us what we need to know about this team. 3-2 will set the table for an NCAA Tournament bid. 4-1 will translate to 10 or 11 conference victories. 5-0 is too much to ask.

The conference opener – Louisville

The Irish are catching the Cardinals at a bad time for atmosphere. The students aren't back yet, and the Sugar Bowl game is the same evening. Notre Dame missed the boat by not announcing a football game watch on the big screens after the basketball game. They could keep the concession stands open and, just to make it a rollicking good time, have human hamster ball races during every time out. The JACC will be half empty, and many who do attend will leave early to be home in time for kick-off. Personally, I'll Tivo the football game, start watching it late, skip through the commercials, and catch up to real time before the end of halftime.

Atmosphere aside, the Irish are catching the Cardinals at a good time because, despite considerable talent, Louisville isn't playing particularly well. Terrence Williams, Juan Palacios, David Padgett, and star freshman Derrick Caracter ought to provide enough star power to have an outstanding team; yet Louisville has lost to Dayton, Arizona, UMass, and Kentucky. I like the notion of ND's defense pressuring the ball all over the floor to keep Louisville from running its offense comfortably. Let them get comfortable against someone else next week or the week after it because sooner or later, the Cardinals will start to gel.

A good defensive effort will keep UL out of its comfort zone this week. Irish by seven.

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