Opportunity Awaits

IrishEyes breaks down the manageable upcoming schedule for the 3-3 Irish.

One year ago this weekend, the Notre Dame basketball team had posted a 3-3 conference mark and had just begun the most daunting stretch contained within its 18-game Big East slate.

The Irish were nationally ranked (No.19 despite consecutive losses at No. 8 Louisville and No. 9 Syracuse) and owned a Big East record-tying 20-game home winning streak (45 straight overall).

ESPN Game Day was coming to South Bend for the first time in the program's history for a January 24, Saturday night matchup vs. No. 3 UConn.

The Huskies prevailed, ending the home court winning streak in the process, and the Irish went on to lose their next four games as part of a season-crippling, seven-game losing skid. That seven-game stretch featured six teams ranked in the nation's top 12 (as well as a road game at Big East middleweight Cincinnati).

The skid destroyed any realistic chance the Irish had at a third straight NCAA Tournament berth and perhaps more importantly, removed Notre Dame basketball from an ever-so-brief flirtation with national prominence.

A team that reached as high as No. 7 in the national polls couldn't buy a win over a 32-day span

Favorable Stretch

Saturday, the 3-3 Irish, fresh off a home loss to No. 5 Syracuse, begin a seven-game, 21-day stretch in which it appears either you, me, or Mike Brey set the middle portion of the conference schedule for the team from South Bend.

  • Saturday, January 23 vs. DePaul (1-5) at home
  • Wednesday, January 27 at No. 3 Villanova (6-0)
  • Saturday, January 30 at Rutgers (0-6)
  • Thursday, February 4 vs. Cincinnati (4-3) at home
  • Sunday, February 7 vs. South Florida (1-5) at home
  • Thursday, February 11 at Seton Hall (1-4)
  • Sunday, February 14 vs. St. John's (2-4) at home

Aside from the trip to Philly to face ‘Nova at the Wachovia Center (an arena from which the Irish have emerged victorious in consecutive trips, and a much more manageable environment for visitors than the on-campus Pavilion), the Irish will be expected to win in each of these contests; in three of the matchups (DePaul, South Florida, and St. John's), Notre Dame will be a prohibitive favorite.

A 5-2 record would be acceptable over this less-than-daunting stretch, and would place the Irish on solid ground at 8-5 with five difficult games (two at home) remaining. Subsequently, winning two of those final five would put the Irish in the hands of the Committee on Selection Sunday (not to mention in the precarious position of needing a Big East Tourney win the week prior).

But a plausible 6-1 mark, one that assumes a loss to the potent Wildcats, but also wins at Rutgers (ND has won its last two trips to the RAC, though both games were nail-biters vs. poor Scarlet Knights teams) and at Seton Hall (a game in which the loser will likely score more than 80) would allow the Irish to control their own tournament destiny, carrying a 9-4 mark into the final difficult, but navigable stretch of games.

A 9-4 mark would put the Irish back on the map – five games above .500 in the Big East is automatic NCAA positioning considering the league's current reputation. There would no longer be work to do; no must-wins vs. ranked teams or clearly superior foes. The Irish would be considered "in" with two more victories in five games, none of which would singularly carry grave consequences. Perception does matter as late February and early March approach.

In short, a 9-4 mark exiting this seven-game stretch would necessitate a complete season-ending collapse for a return trip to the National Irrelevancy Tournament and another sleepy post-season crowd in the new home arena.

Today's Big East is no place for the meek, but the 2010 schedule-makers did the still-developing Irish a favor with a middle stretch of peers and substandard teams with their own set of problems. This is not a group of athletes in which supporters and detractors of the program can simply point to post-game with the familiar, "well, that team was just better" refrain.

Breaking Down the Slate

Notre Dame boasts a senior point guard in complete control of the offense in Tory Jackson; the conference's most productive and likely best player in Luke Harangody; the conference's best wing shooter in Tim Abromaitis; a second guard that ranks among the nation's best in three-point accuracy and assist-to-turnover ratio in Ben Hansbrough, and a pair of inconsistent but promising junior forwards (Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott) that generally fare quite well at the Purcell Pavilion.

If the Irish drop a home matchup vs. DePaul (13 consecutive conference road losses), South Florida (11 straight), or St. John's (1 of 13 in-conference on the road since 2007), they deserve whatever fate the committee so chooses and the staff deserves to coach in front of 3,000 distracted fans in mid-March.

(While the team cannot assume a win anytime it steps on the floor, the writer and readers of this column can, and will embrace that luxury vs. that trio of conference dregs).

A rematch vs. the Bearcats poses an athletic concern, as Cincinnati sophomore Yancey Gates has played well in two matchups with Harangody and the Irish (26 points and 21 boards in two career games) and the team as a whole plays aggressive, sticky, belligerent defense.

But Notre Dame is a different team at home, and shooters Tim Abromaitis and Ben Hansbrough will play a much larger role than they did on January 16 in an ugly 60-58 loss to the Bearcats at Fifth Third Arena. (As well, Harangody is unlikely to miss 15 of 20 shots in South Bend as he did in that needless defeat).

Historically, the trip east to Rutgers (0-6) hasn't been kind to the Irish (Brey is 3-3; Matt Doherty was 0-1; and John MacLoed was 0-3 in Piscataway).

But Rutgers is a poor basketball team, and one recently without the services of second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, not to mention 2009 Harangody-foil, Gregory Echenique, who plans to transfer. Good teams, NCAA Tournament teams, concentrate and win at Rutgers, regardless of the crowd's influence or inevitably hot performance of one the Scarlet Knight's shooting guards (this year's Quincy Douby/potential lightning rod is sophomore Mike Rosario) .

The trip to Seton Hall represents the fly in the ointment. The Irish have won six straight vs. The Hall dating back to 2004, but struggled mightily last January vs. the Pirates pesky man-to-man pressure before pulling away late, 88-79 at the Joyce Center.

Seton Hall possesses the league's second-leading scorer (free-shooting Jeremy Hazell) and leading rebounder (New Mexico State transfer center Herb Pope). To be blunt, the sum of their parts is much greater than the whole.

Finally, Notre Dame will likely lose at Villanova, a team that could come back from any early deficit earned by hot Irish shooters and a group that plays far too well defensively to drop an end game battle of possessions vs. this Notre Dame offense. The Wildcats could rank as high as No. 3 when the teams meet next Wednesday.

At Stake

Mike Brey's Irish have put together a six wins in seven games run four times in Big East play: 2008 (twice); 2007 (six straight to end the season including a conference tourney win over Syracuse before losing to Georgetown in the Big East semi-finals); and in 2001 (an ND-best eight-game winning streak stretching from mid-January to mid-February).

Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson have played a large role in three of those four runs of excellence. And though they'll need to perform at their highest level collectively for a similar streak this season, the key to the next segment of games is the forward duo of Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott. No longer can the pair show up in stretches. Past the season's midway point, the two juniors need to maintain the mental focus and effort they've showed in stretches this season.

Coach Brey repeatedly spoke of a team "still finding its identity" through the end of non-conference play and even into the start of the Big East schedule. Now would be the time to establish that identity, as a shot at the tournament that matters and the momentum of the program lies in the balance.

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