After losing just one key player from a team that had a 24-7 regular season record and earned a five-seed for the NCAA Tournament, expectations are high for the Notre Dame men's basketball team heading into the 2008-09 season. According to head coach Mike Brey, maybe a little too high.
The Irish have been ranked as high as top five in some polls, but to Brey all that talk is premature.
"I don't know if we're that good," Brey said. "I think we've got Top 25-ability. I've seen some of those single digits and I don't if I can agree with that right now. We've got a lot of potential though, a lot to work with."
Even if Notre Dame does prove to be a top five team nationally, it could still be behind Connecticut and Pittsburgh, who have also been ranked in the top five, in the Big East. With everyone back from last year except forward Rob Kurz, the Fighting Irish should be a year older, wiser and better, but a brutal regular season schedule may not translate into a higher win total.
"It's the toughest basketball schedule we've ever played in our history given what the league is," Brey said.
Notre Dame was 14-4 in Big East play last year, but Brey is not expecting a repeat of that this season.
"14 in the league, with the way the league is this year, that's not happening," Brey said. "I just don't know how that's going to happen."
In addition to the difficult conference schedule the Irish have an amazingly tough non-conference slate with the Maui Classic and independent games away from home against Ohio State and UCLA.
"At times I've looked at it during the summer and wondered what I was thinking," Brey joked. "The thing that's crazy, in the midst of what the Big East is this year and what we've been given in the Big East, we're just going to go to Pauley Pavilion one weekend. We're just going to take a break and go play UCLA on the road. I should have my head examined on that one."
But no matter how much Brey tries to temper expectations, he cannot deny that his team has the chance at doing something special this season. The Irish bring back the reigning Big East Player of the Year in junior forward Luke Harangody. Brey said that he believes senior guard Kyle McAlarney is the best pure shooter in the country and junior point guard Tory Jackson will be in his third year of major minutes and is starting to get it according to his coach.
"I almost feel like we have seven starters," Brey said. "I would have said six starters before we went to Ireland, but the way Jon Peoples played in Ireland, I feel like we have seven starters. I was just really happy with how he played and how confident he was coming off that trip. I think Ryan Ayers; it was great for him as well. It was great for Zeller."
The experienced seven-man rotation also gives Notre Dame seven true leaders.
"I have not been around better leadership in my career in coaching than the tone that has been set by the four seniors," said Brey. "But those three juniors are pretty darn good too; they've been through it. You really have seven men in the program that have really set the tone and are very businesslike about things."
With so many veterans returning, Brey and his staff will not have to spend much time getting everyone on the same page and they can just pick up from where they left off after a summer exhibition trip to Ireland.
"The only new guys are the two transfers (Ben Hansbrough and Scott Martin) and it's not like they're 18-year old freshmen," Brey said. "You can move pretty quick in practice and get into some things."
Notre Dame was eliminated in the second round of the NCAA Tournament against a mature Washington State team last season, but this year the Irish should have that advantage over most opponents.
"Hopefully rotate in the role of being men this year. We were older last year, but Washington State was truly men. I talked to them right in the locker room in Denver about that," Brey said. "I've said throughout the summer and even in Ireland a little bit. I said, ‘Remember we played against men that night and they kind of chewed us up and spit us out. And can we get that maturity level physically?'
"I'm not saying our guys were immature because they're pretty old too, but that was a different level of maturity that I think we can strive to be like."
With a more veteran team, the head coach talked about pacing his guys and the balance between not getting burned out and putting themselves in a good position come March.
"When I say pace it's just probably how we practice, length of practice and physicality of practice," he explained. "You want to try and play for a regular season championship. We were in the hunt all of the way until, I think the second to last week, to maybe have a shot for a regular season title. I think you focus on that first and see what you can do in that arena and chase that. That kind of lines you up for your seeding in New York and after that."
While Brey will try to keep his guys fresh, do not expect the Irish to slow anything down during games, especially on the offensive end.
"We do want to do (score) and we want to go for it and play," he said. "That's the way the game should be played. I just don't know how people can watch 52-48. I mean come on, are you kidding? We're trying to sell tickets too. If I had two 52-48's, I've got to retire after that."
Brey knows that his team has firepower on offense, but says that it needs to improve on the defensive glass, which is something that Kurz excelled at, especially late in games.
"The reason I can't agree with (the preseason rankings), single-digits, top 10, top 12, is that I just haven't seen us defensive rebound at key times and get key loose balls," he said. "We talked about that even in Ireland. It didn't cost us games in Ireland obviously because the competition was different. We have not done that consistently enough yet."
But even as Brey tries to keep his players grounded, he understands that this bunch has the chance to go far and has earned the right to think about just how far they can go.
"This group deserves to be able to dream about it and think about it. That's realistic for this group," he said. "They have dug themselves out, especially that senior class with 6-10 as freshmen in the Big East. They have done some really great things for our basketball program. I want them going for it and thinking about it."