RPI Ready to Rise

Though final conference record, the number of quality wins vs. questionable losses, and yes, perception will likely determine Notre Dame's post-season fate, the Irish have an excellent chance to improve their RPI over the season's final eight-plus contests.

Notre Dame's Super Bowl Sunday matchup with South Florida (tip-off is set for Noon, ET) appeared to be a home-court gimme in the pre-season, but has since morphed into a resume-building must-win for the .500 Irish.

After a familiar 0-4 start in conference play, the Bulls have reeled off five wins in their last six games with two upsets (vs. then No. 17 Pittsburgh and at No. 8 Georgetown) included. Throw in a 109-105 OT win at Providence and South Florida is suddenly worthy of tournament consideration, especially if the 5-5 Bulls can take out the like-record Irish on their home court Sunday afternoon.

When You Make Your Own Bed...

As college basketball approaches mid-February, the confusing but ultimately objective Ratings Percentage Index inevitably reenters the sports fans' vernacular.

South Florida's current RPI of 48 is ahead of Notre Dame's (62), but the fluid metric bodes well for the Irish in the season's second half.

ND will face Georgetown (8), Pittsburgh (24), Louisville (38), UConn (52), Seton Hall (59) and Marquette (64) in seven of their final eight regular season contests. Last night's win over now No. 49 Cincinnati not only helped out the Irish, but (off-topic) also afforded me the opportunity to point out an inherent, yet overlooked flaw in the RPI system: computers don't watch games because Cincinnati is not a Top 50 basketball team.

Thursday night's 83-65 win over the Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight was both necessary and maddening. How did the veteran Irish give away a 60-58 contest to these Bearcats in mid-January, a team that hit just 32 percent from the floor, including a 5-21 brick-fest from long-range? (Missing more than half of their free throws and losing the battle on the glass by a robust 20 boards were the chief culprits in the Irish loss).

Couple that defeat with the shocker vs. an awful Rutgers team and Notre Dame has only themselves to blame for their current middle-of-the-pack, 5-5 conference predicament.

Fortunately for the Irish, seven Big East teams fall into the 5-5/6-4 conference staging area entering Super Bowl weekend.

The 2010 Big East Conference features three legitimate top-tier teams in (RPI) No. 4 Villanova (9-0); No. 2 Syracuse (9-1); and No. 6 West Virginia (7-2). The Mountaineers fell victim to Notre Dame's best first half of the season en route to a two-point upset loss in South Bend in early January, while both Villanova and Syracuse outclassed Notre Dame for a victory earned in the game's final 10 minutes. Neither loss will be held against the Irish on Selection Sunday.

The win over West Virginia holds up (and will continue to do so) as a huge feather in the 2010 Irish cap, but not one that can erase the Rutgers debacle or worse, a 87-85 home December loss to current sub-.500 dweller Loyola Marymount.

Save Some Nails for Six Weeks of Biting

Aside from a by punchless St. John's next Sunday, Notre Dame's upcoming eight-game slate is likely to include outcomes determined by the contest's final five minutes.

The Irish took the first step toward mid-March relevance with Thursday night's win, but Sunday's battle vs. the Bulls remains a must-win as these Irish must still venture outside of South Bend on four occasions before season's end:

  • A trip to high-scoring Seton Hall next week (likely a Pick ‘Em game according to the experts in the Desert). The Mike Brey-Irish are 4-2 on the road vs. the Pirates with three games decided by a single basket.
  • A game vs. Louisville in Freedom Hall, a building in which the Notre Dame program is a comical 5-26 all-time (1-7 vs. the Cardinals with the win occurring in 1958)
  • A matchup with Georgetown in D.C., a situation in which the Irish have lost three straight though Coach Brey did win his first three vs. the Hoyas in his old high school stomping grounds
  • A short trip to Milwaukee to face Marquette at the Bradley Center. Brey's record in that building? 0-3 with Notre Dame's last win arriving courtesy of Monty Williams in 1994.

If you're more interested in recent statistics rather than historical footnotes, consider the Irish are 2-12 in their last 14 Big East road games and 12-20 in the Luke Harangody/Tory Jackson era.

Reestablish Home Court Dominance

After winning 20 straight vs. conference foes (a run that included wins vs. every Big East program), Notre Dame is a mere 8-4 in league play at the JACC/Purcell Pavilion. The Irish have four wins and an acceptable loss (Syracuse) in their new digs this season but (considering the road slate listed above) it will likely take an 8-1 home court finish to put the Irish in consideration for an NCAA bid.

In post-game Cincinnati interviews, Notre Dame's starters spoke about the need to "be men," that there's "no more complaining about anything," and that they can't "be satisfied with 5-5."

The collective tabling of the usual post-game coach-speak regarding a "one-game winning streak" is long overdue. Those meek aspirations guide teams toward the Not Invited Tournament in mid-March.

No Excuses

The Irish showed how dangerous they can be in Thursday night's surgical offensive display (25 assists on 29 made baskets…with two tip-ins).

Luke Harangody attacked inside with a determination reminiscent of his breakout sophomore campaign (Brey referred to the All American's turn-back-the-clock evening as: "Blue-Collar ‘Gody'" ). The entire starting five and emerging seventh-man Carleton Scott committed to battling for every missed shot and loose ball, a development that eases the team's collective athletic shortcomings. And when the Irish force the tempo after a miss and emphasize ball reversals in half-court sets, they rank as one of the most efficient offensive groups west of Syracuse.

To be blunt, a team with Harangody; with two senior guards that rank among the nation's top three play-makers (in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio); and with a junior forward averaging 18.4 points over 10 league games (that has knocked down an astounding 21 of 36 three-point shots in five conference home games) should better than 5-5, especially vs. what has been a relatively forgiving Big East slate.

For the first time this season, the "we're getting better…finding who we are as a team" refrain was not Coach Brey's focus. Aside from the requisite "Great to be 5-5 in the Big East" (please!) preamble, Brey seemed fittingly peeved that the Irish face must-win games at the midway point. Exasperated that his best player too often ventures too far from the bucket to find an offensive rhythm, and that it took an 8 AM practice to convince a veteran team that there was more at stake than certificates of participation, and "we'll bounce back" pats on the back.

Super Sunday Surprise

Tomorrow's noon tip-off has been picked up by ESPN's Full Court coverage - a pay-per-view college basketball package generally subscribed to by hoops junkies.

South Florida at ND in early February was not originally deemed worthy of television coverage, but that changed with Bulls wins over Pittsburgh and Wednesday's stunner at Georgetown.

Brey accurately depicted Sunday's visitors as the league's hottest team, one with a rare NBA-level scoring guard who's also a senior: Dominique Jones (whom Brey compared to former Sixers great Andrew Toney). Jones has scored 46, 28, 37, and 29 points in South Florida's last four games (all wins). He kept the Bulls alive vs. ND in the teams' early January meeting (won 74-73 by the Irish) scoring 26 points with five assists and will again face a defense with no athletic equal Sunday afternoon.

But 40 minutes of focus and toughness will be enough for the Irish at home vs. the improved Bulls. It will be enough if the Irish play with the urgency and commitment on the defensive glass that they've often showed in South Bend if not elsewhere, and it will be enough if Coach Brey and his All American senior again recognize that the most unstoppable player on the floor belongs banging on the low block; again fighting for each win and eventual Selection Sunday consideration for Brey's South Bend Seven.

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