Irish Look to Avoid January Chill

Mike Brey has been here before -- a slight January letdown after sizzling performances in November and December. The baskets won't come so easy, Brey says, in Big East play, and adjustments are needed. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli returns to the ND beat and takes a look at how Brey is preparing his squad physically and mentally for the challenges ahead.

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January 10, 2003

January Big East Chill
Familiar to Brey, Irish

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

(IE) Mike Brey understands how humbling Big East play can be, particularly in January.

His once-beaten, fifth-ranked Fighting Irish swaggered into the sparkling new Petersen Events Center Monday with an eye on making an early statement in the Big East's West Division race.  The 72-55 loss to Pittsburgh, the defending Conference champs, has lessened expectations and revived memories of recent January struggles.

"The last time I checked, we were still picked to finish fourth in the (Big East) pre-season poll," Brey said in a somewhat subdued conference call with reporters Thursday morning, "And the West Division sure looks good.  Picking the teams one-through-five, who knows?

"We're just trying to get to 1-1 in league play now."

Five days of emotional and physical preparation are a welcome tonic for the 12-2 Irish.  Even more refreshing will be a return to the Joyce Center on Sunday for a noon tip-off with early West Division cellar-dweller Seton Hall (5-6 overall, 0-2 Big East).  The Irish are 8-0 on the friendly floorboards with an average margin of victory of 27.6 points per game.

But one familiar refrain that Brey has been preaching to his team this week is that the rules of basketball change in January.  Conference play is more of a passion play, with the spotlight hotter, the play faster and the stakes higher.

"We have to come to the realization," Brey said, "that the 90 point blitzes are not going to happen in league play.  We have to come to grips with that."

There will be an adjustment period.  In Brey's first year under the Dome, the Irish averaged 87.3 points per contest in November and December then dropped to 73.5 in Big East and post-season play.  Last year, it was 85.2 points in November and December, 75.2 once the calendar turned.  This season, Brey's gang pumped in 84.8 points per through the Dec. 30 Vanderbilt clash, nearly 30 points per game higher than the 55 per contest to date in 2003.  The adjustment has sometimes been rocky, with unexpected January stumbles. Brey is 10-8 (.555) in January at ND, 44-15 (.745) all other months.

"We've had a fabulous run thus far and we just have to keep our head's up now," said Brey.  "Let's face it, when you are sent to Pittsburgh for your first league game, on national television, in that new building, it's an adjustment." 

Notre Dame recovered beautifully in 2001 and 2002, making the NCAA Tournament both years.  The Irish will be on a track to the post-season again, according to Brey, if they successfully address the following three issues:

"(Dan) Miller has to rebound," Brey said.  The Maryland transfer had four rebounds in 37 minutes versus Valparaiso, zero in 29 minutes versus Pittsburgh.  The 6-8, 220-pounder never showed a proclivity to crash the glass in College Park (never more than seven boards in any single ACC game), but there's no denying that ND will be pounded inside in the physical West unless Miller steps up.  "Certainly there's cause for concern," said Brey.  "We got to have Dan active."

"Chris Thomas is a young man that takes too much responsibility personally," said Brey. "I try to diffuse it.  We're working on that this week."  Thomas, undeniably pre-season the Irish MVP and a Big East Player of the Year candidate, is five-for-26 in his 2003 field goal attempts.  Brey knows his prize pupil still needs patient nurturing.  "You forget sometimes this guy is a sophomore."

"We need to feed Torin Francis as an entry," Brey noted, "much like we did with Troy (Murphy) and Ryan (Humphrey).   We need to loosen the defenses up a little bit.  Sometimes our veterans want to take it off the dribble.  We need to fight that a little bit."

Brey sees all three as easily correctable measures and also is thrilled with the stunning early-season performance of Matt Carroll, who has catapulted himself into the All-Big East race with a 31-point effort at Pittsburgh.

"I'm so happy for him, to really bring it on a national TV game like that," said Brey.  The coach has a special fondness for the Pennsylvania guard, the only Irish player to be in the regular starting line-up all three years of Brey's tenure.  "He's been so helpful to me, and there's no-one more deserving of this success."

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes Magazine and can be reached at aatandsonspr@aol.com.  For subscription information on IrishEyes Magazine please visit www.irisheyes.com or call 888-501-5752)


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