Irish at Home in Big East

Notre Dame is off to its best start ever in Big East Conference play after a 71-65 victory at Providence Tuesday night. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports courtside from the Dunkin' Donuts Center, lending perspective on just how far Mike Brey's program has come since the last Irish visit here.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

January 21, 2003

Irish Belong in Big East's
High Rent District

By Alan Tieuli
The IrishEyes.Com News Service

PROVIDENCE, RI (IE) – Here, in the birthplace of the Big East Conference, Notre Dame proved it has matured into one of the circuit's major powers.

The Irish are off to their best start in Big East history, 3-1, after a satisfying 71-65 victory over Providence College last night before a near capacity crowd of 11,843 at the unfortunately named Dunkin' Donuts Center.  The home crowd seemed overly caffeinated, hooting loudly as the visitors earned the benefit of some whistles down the stretch.  But this game was won, simply, because Notre Dame has the deeper, stronger program right now.

"This is great, every year it's gotten better and better," said guard Matt Carroll, who scored 21 points in 37 minutes. "This is why I came to Notre Dame, to put us back on the map."

It wasn't always like this.   When Notre Dame last played in this building – Dec. 8, 1999 – it was the last year of the John MacLeod era and the Irish's fourth campaign in the Big East.  Counting that season, the Irish journeys in Big East waters had been rough: 27-45 (.375) overall in conference play. 

Since, with Matt Doherty lighting the fuse and Mike Brey providing the fuel, the Irish are an outstanding 32-20 (.615), 24-12 under Brey.   No team in the Big East has won more games the past three seasons and the respect, and talent level, is growing.  A baseline press table last night was filled with NBA scouts from Atlanta, Los Angeles, Dallas, Indiana, Sacramento and Boston.  The top college basketball writer in the country – Jim O'Connell from the Associated Press – also made a special trip up from New York to see the 16th ranked Irish.

The hoop intelligencia saw Notre Dame turn in a solid road effort, winning with poise (only nine turnovers) and the continuation of uncanny free-throw shooting (21-for-25).  It was the team's first road victory of the year, and according to Brey, the most meaningful triumph.

"I told our guys we've done some very good things this year, but nothing is better than what we did tonight," said Brey.

Dave Gavitt, the founding commissioner of the Big East Conference, and former head coach at Providence, would have been proud of the guard play turned in last night by Chris Thomas.  Hoop fans 40 and older will remember how Gavitt's 1973 Providence team – led by the magical point guard Ernie DiGregorio – advanced all the way to the Final Four, revitalizing college basketball in New England and ultimately paving the way for  the Big East.  Thomas' performance on this night – 23 points, six assists, five rebounds – was worthy of DiGregorio, not to mention the top players in the country today.

"It was his best all-around game in terms of running our team, defending, picking tempo and showing poise," said Brey. "We need him to do that."

Thomas was eager to turn his game around following a four-for-17 effort Saturday in the lopsided loss at Kentucky.

"Coach said this was our biggest win of the season and I couldn't agree more," Thomas said. "We got beat by Kentucky and everybody got their back turned against us.  (But) us 12 people on the basketball team know what we can do."

Humbling losses at Pittsburgh, in the Big East opener, and Saturday in Blue Grass Country, had many suspecting that the Irish may have been a paper lion.  This win disproved that theory.  While PC is not a conference contender, it does have one of the noisiest buildings in the league and the Irish were in very unfamiliar territory.  Not one player had ever stepped foot in the Dunkin' Donuts Center, and Brey had never coached there.  It's a facility that is showing its age, but also exudes nostalgia.  Lenny Wilkens' number hangs in the rafters.  The first Big East Conference Tournament was played here.  Kelly Tripucka and LaPhonso Ellis competed in NCAA Tournament games here.

So it's appropriate to use this game as evidence of how far Brey's program has come.  Notre Dame may be geographically challenged in the Big East, but it now belongs athletically.

"I'm really proud of where we are at," said Brey. "We are pretty poised and our demeanor is pretty good.   We don't get rattled.  That goes to guys like (Dan) Miller, Thomas and Carroll.  Torrian Jones too.  Those guys have been there before and know what to do to win in this conference."

Providence dropped to 9-7, 1-3 in the East Division of the Big East.  The Friars led early, 7-0 and 10-2, maintained a 34-33 halftime advantage and were still within two points (64-62) with 2:28 remaining.  But Notre Dame pulled it out with outstanding team contributions.

Jordan Cornette (four points, seven rebounds, three blocks) notched the biggest basket of the game, a lay-up off a baseline penetrating feed from Jones with 1:27 left, increasing the Irish lead to 68-62.  Solid half-court defense and clutch free throw shooting ended it without a great degree of drama.

Notre Dame shot 21-for-25 from the free-throw line, after making 22-of-23 against Rutgers on Jan. 14 and 22-of-29 against Seton Hall on Jan. 12.  All were victories.

"You kind of expect that now," said Brey. "We're pretty confident and it's a bunch of different guys making them.  It's just a great weapon."

Another weapon on this night was local boy making good Torin Francis.   Raised in Roslindale, Mass. (50 miles east) and schooled at Tabor Academy in Mattapoisett, Mass. (30 miles southeast), the 6-10 freshman scored 13 points and secured eight rebounds.  A crowd of 15 family members and friends cheered him on, and a much larger contingent is expected to be on hand when Francis and the Irish venture to Boston College on Saturday.

"I've never been in this building before," Francis said. "The coaches recruited me here, but I never actually got down here.  This was a good win on the road."

Francis, like all of his teammates, didn't have much time to celebrate.  After doing local TV and dishing out hugs and kisses to his family, he had to catch the Notre Dame team bus to T.F. Green Airport and a charter flight back to South Bend.  Class beckoned at 8:30 Wednesday morning.

"Business stats," he said, naming the class. "But I got all my homework done."

So did the Irish on this night.  In fact, recently, they have been passing all their Big East classes….with flying colors.

 -0- 

IRISHEYES NOTEBOOK: Notre Dame's frequent travels this week were the buzz of the press room.  The Irish flew to Lexington Friday, then chose a six-hour bus trip back on Saturday.   They flew here after dinner on Monday, arriving at 1:15 a.m. Tuesday, then chartered back immediately following the game.   After attending class on Wednesday and Thursday, they'll jet back to Boston around noon Friday and practice at BC's Conte Forum Friday night.  "We thought about staying out here," said Brey. "We have a miss class policy.  It wasn't going to work staying here.  What I like about this is last year we came home from West Virginia (on a Thursday morning) and flew back to Pittsburgh (on a Friday night) and won both games.  So we're hoping for the same thing with this trip."…….Carroll has been playing so well early in the Big East season, that his 21-point, six-rebound effort was almost taken for granted.  Brey was a little peeved at the senior for some bad shot selection in the first-half and told him at halftime, "I know you are averaging 25 points a game, but how about today you score 12 and we actually win the game."…..Miller had eight points, five rebounds and two steals in 37 minutes, hardly all-star numbers, but Brey was very pleased with the senior forward.   "He defended better than he ever defended," said Brey. "He moved the ball, he handled the ball, he made shots when he needed to.   I told him before the game, 'Just relax,   You don't have to prove yourself by putting up numbers all the time.  Just do the little things.' "......Separated at birth: Providence coach Tim Welsh and Hollywood icon Kevin Spacey.  Welsh is a terrific young coach and has two outstanding building blocks in sophomore forward Ryan Gomes (21 points, 13 rebounds) and freshman point guard Donnie McGrath (16 points, four assists).  When you think of Gomes, think Eric Williams, a former Friar now starting for the Boston Celtics.  McGrath is a look and playalike for Syracuse freshman point guard Gerry McNamara…..The Dunkin' Donuts Center, like so many other arenas in the Big East, has set up a row of floorside VIP seats in order to increase the revenue stream.  These seats, available only to Providence season ticket holders, carry a $1,000 per seat surcharge in addition to the price of the season ticket. It also allows fans to imitate their favorite coaches by stomping and screaming at the officials, especially here in Providence where over the years the fans have made referee-baiting an art form.. ….One member of the Irish traveling party who was familiar with this building is Athletic Director Kevin White, who shared many happy moments in the facility as he was building a juggernaut hockey program during his University of Maine tenure…..Providence has lost nine consecutive games to ranked opponents, that note courtesy of veteran Friar beat writer Kevin McNamara.

 (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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