Before Big East play began Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said that a 9-9 conference record would be a realistic goal and would probably be good enough to get the Irish involved in the NCAA Tournament conversation.
At the time it seemed like a rather modest target for a team that returned all but one contributor from a squad that notched 14 league victories a year ago. But halfway through the conference schedule the Irish sit a 3-6 in the league and Brey would not be able to find a pen fast enough to sign up for 9-9.
Brey was right, a 9-9 Big East record will put Notre Dame in position to earn a NCAA Tournament at-large bid. It will probably be enough to put the Irish into the conference's top eight which means that they would not have to play on the first day of the Big East Tournament and put them in a better position to improve their tournament résumé.
With nine league games, Notre Dame needs to go 6-3 to reach .500. Of the final nine Big East contests, four come on the road, six are against teams with better conference records (Cincinnati, Louisville, west Virginia, Providence, Connecticut and Villanova) and three come against teams that the Irish have already played (Louisville, UConn and St. John's). Notre Dame lost all three games.
There are no more extended breaks on the schedule as Notre Dame heads to Cincinnati on Wednesday before its final non-league game at UCLA on Saturday. The Irish will have four days off before hosting Louisville (Feb. 12) and South Florida (Feb. 15).
Notre Dame then has back-to-back road games at West Virginia (Feb. 18) and Providence (Feb. 21) before returning home to entertain Rutgers (Feb. 25). The Irish then travel to Connecticut (Feb. 28) before wrapping up the regular season with home dates against Villanova (March 2) and St. John's (March 6).
With the way that the season has gone so far, Notre Dame cannot chalk up any game as an easy win. But if the Irish are not able to sweep the home games against South Florida (7-13, 2-6), Rutgers (10-12, 1-8) and St. John's (11-9, 2-6) then they do not deserve to earn an NCAA bid without a serious run in the conference tournament.
So if Notre Dame is able to win those three games against the league's cellar dwellers, the Irish will need to split their remaining six conference games to get to 9-9. The best way for the Irish to accomplish that would be to start with a win over the Bearcats (14-7, 4-4) on Wednesday.
If the Irish are able to snap their five-game losing streak in Cincinnati and come away with a split in the two toughest remaining league games, against Louisville (17-3, 8-0) and at UConn (20-1, 9-1), they would need just a single win against West Virginia (15-6, 4-4), Providence (14-7, 6-3) and Villanova (16-4, 4-3).
None of those three games looks as promising as they did earlier in the year, especially the game at Providence. The Friars have been the surprise of the league this year and although they got smoked at Connecticut this past weekend, they proved their might with a 100-94 home win over Syracuse.
The Mountaineers' only league losses have come against the big dogs (UConn, Marquette, Pitt and Louisville) and have an impressive 75-58 home win over Georgetown on their record.
Villanova's only conference defeats have come against the Golden Eagles, Cardinals and Huskies and the Wildcats recorded their best win of the season last week with a 67-57 victory over Pitt.
If Notre Dame is unable to stop the losing streak at five or does not steal one against the Cardinals or the Huskies, the Irish will need to win two of the three against the Mountaineers, Friars and Wildcats. If Notre Dame goes 0-3 against Cincinnati, Louisville and Connecticut, then the Irish will have the difficult task of needing to sweep the remainder of their conference games.
The UCLA game always loomed as a very tough independent game, but with the Irish's current slide, it could come at a very bad time, especially if Notre Dame is unable to get past the Bearcats. On the other hand if Notre Dame does beat Cincinnati, the trip to Pauley Pavilion could serve as a springboard into the final league stretch.
Bottomline, Notre Dame needs to get a league win now.