If the Big East regular season schedule was tough, the conference tournament is going to be downright brutal.
Even in a tournament format that means plenty of solid teams will be eliminated by other solid teams, there is no easy road to the tourney title.
The Big East Conference Tournament has been expanded to include all 16 teams, starting Tuesday with seeds 9-16 in action at Madison Square Garden. The Nos. 5-8 teams will take on Tuesday's winners in second round play on Wednesday before the league's top four squads get into the act during the quarterfinals on Thursday.
Semifinal games will be held on Friday before the Championship Game on Saturday night.
Notre Dame (17-13, 8-10) is seeded 10th in the conference tournament and will have as tough of a journey as anyone. The Irish will need a run in New York in order to get to the NCAA Tournament, but there has been some debate on what a ‘run' means.
When the Irish lost to Villanova in the final week of the season, assuring them of a losing record in the league, it became clear that they would need to earn their NCAA Tournament bid in the conference tourney.
While Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said that two wins will get his team back on the committee's board, it is likely that the Irish will be one of the first teams to be taken down if their run in New York ends with two wins and a loss.
Three wins obviously makes Notre Dame's case stronger, but the Irish would still be considered a bubble team. In Brey's words, four wins in New York and ‘It's over.' While a run to the league's Championship Game would probably be enough to earn the Irish an at-large spot, the only way to assure themselves of a bid would be with a fifth victory.
Notre Dame has the talent to beat any team in the league, but it will not be easy, especially since the Irish will be playing every day while the top teams have a two-day bye.
Notre Dame plays 15th-seeded Rutgers (11-20, 2-16) in its opening round game at 7 p.m. on Tuesday. The Irish beat Rutgers 70-65 at home when the teams met in February and they will be favored again in New York.
If the Irish get past the Scarlet Knights, seventh-seeded West Virginia (21-10, 10-8) will be waiting for them in another 7 p.m. game on Wednesday. The Mountaineers defeated Notre Dame 79-68 when the teams played in February. West Virginia would probably be a slight favorite if it faced Notre Dame, but an Irish victory would hardly been an upset.
The Irish would have to feel good about reaching the quarterfinals, but a Thursday night date with No. 2 Pittsburgh (28-3, 15-3) is nothing to celebrate. The Panthers, who probably clinched a NCAA No. 1 seed with their win over UConn in the regular season finale, beat Notre Dame 93-80 in Pittsburgh in January led by DeJuan Blair's 23-point, 22-rebound performance.
A win over West Virginia would probably not be enough to put the Irish in the field of 65, but a win over Pittsburgh would be hard to ignore. Still, an at-large berth depends on a number of different factors, including the results of the other conference tournaments around the nation.
The reason why Brey thinks four wins would put the Irish in the tournament is because the fourth would most likely come against Connecticut (27-3, 15-3). The Huskies beat Notre Dame twice this season, but the Irish were in both games. While Notre Dame's confidence would be sky high if it was able to reach the semifinals, fatigue would have to play a role when playing its fourth game in four days.
If the Irish were to make the final round and lose against either No. 1 Louisville, No. 4 Villanova or No. 5 Marquette, Notre Dame's final record would be 21-14 and would finally have a winning record against Big East foes at 12-11.
Obviously a fifth win would earn Notre Dame the league's automatic bid and probably have plenty of people talking about the Irish as a darkhorse for the NCAA Tournament, but considering the competition and the amount of games in a short period of time, that is highly unlikely.
But Notre Dame still has a chance to reach the NCAA tournament with a strong New York performance and for now that will keep the Irish motivated.