Its Rarely Easy

With two-thirds of the conference season in the books, Notre Dame faces an uphill struggle in its quest for an NCAA bid.

This is why Rutgers mattered.

This is why missing more than half of 19 free throw attempts in a two-point road loss to Cincinnati in mid-January will sting in mid-March.

And this is why blowing a early 10-point lead in December vs. Loyola Marymount will rightly be an issue when the NCAA Selection Committee gathers to discuss Notre Dame's credentials for the only post-season tournament that people actually care about.

The trio of losses above make last night's setback at Seton Hall sting that much more.

Singularly, Notre Dame's 90-87 defeat at the hands of Jeremy Hazell and the Pirates is excusable. Seton Hall is a 4-7 Big East team capable of performances such as Thursday's. They scored 86 against West Virginia; 83 vs. Syracuse; they beat Louisville and Pittsburgh; and they'll likely finish with 8-9 conference wins if they can focus vs. the Big East bottom dwellers that await at the tail-end of their top-heavy schedule.

But last night's loss won't be viewed as an aberration, rather a familiar pattern of road shortcomings for a team that has just one win outside of South Bend in six conference games.

Everyone wins at home – maybe not with the regularity of Mike Brey's Irish – but home court wins in college basketball are necessary and expected. There are very few true "upsets" recorded by a home team in conference play save for the occasional unfocused team's debacle at say...Rutgers.

Tournament teams find a way to win on the road, or in pseudo road games in a Thanksgiving tournament nobody's ever heard of vs. middling Big 10 contributors such as Northwestern.

They knock down one of two wide open 20-footers to send games into overtime. They find a way to limit a pedestrian group of teammates when the opposing star puts on a dynamic shooting display (and to be fair to Notre Dame's defense, Hazell was unreal last night. There wasn't a player on Notre Dame's campus in the last decade that would have slowed his roll).

Tournament teams aspire to more than a one-game winning streak in conference play. They're not "thrilled" to be 5-5 or 7-6 or 9-9.

But NIT participants sure are. Even if nobody's watching.

The Road Ahead

The 6-6 Irish have eliminated their margin for error. Three home games (St. John's, Pittsburgh, Connecticut) and three road contests (Louisville, Georgetown, Marquette) remain before the Big East Tournament. A 4-2 record would put the Irish in great position for an NCAA bid, not to mention a likely 6th place final regular season standing in the nation's toughest conference.

But that assumes a road win (which is nonsensical at this point) and consistent toughness vs. three teams that are going to come to the Purcell Pavilion hell-bent on pounding the smaller Irish on the backboards.

Protecting their home court is a must, and the Irish – assuming Luke Harangody returns at full strength from last night's knee injury – will be both sizeable (St. John's) and shaky (Pittsburgh and UConn) favorites to complete their home slate.

The trick will be a road "steal," which reminds me: whatever happened to just winning on the road? Why are the Irish reduced to talking about stealing games simply because the gym background differs?

Next Wednesday's opponent Louisville is distracted and vulnerable (a 19-point loss at St. John's last night followed recent rumors that head coach Rick Pitino has made NBA overtures). The Cardinals travel to Syracuse Saturday and will likely enter next week's contest with the Irish at 6-6 (ND will be either 7-6 or 6-7 pending the outcome vs. the Red Storm).

But the Irish haven't beaten Louisville in Freedom Hall in the Brey era…or in the MacLoed or Phelps eras, for that matter.

A February 27, nationally televised contest at No. 7 Georgetown (8-4) ranks as the season's toughest remaining matchup. The Irish have dropped their last three in Washington, D.C. and five consecutive to the Hoyas in games played outside of South Bend.

The regular season-finale at the Bradley Center vs. Marquette (6-5) pits the Irish vs. the league's best three-point shooting team and a scrappy, mentally tough group of defenders that will wreak havoc on Notre Dame's half-court perimeter attack. The teams are likely to be within a game of each other in the conference standings making the matchup a de facto elimination game. The Irish last won in Milwaukee in 1994 (0-3 in the Brey era).

Wins over both Louisville and Marquette would help separate the Irish from the glut of peer teams fighting for a sixth-place (or conceivably fifth-place) conference finish.

Leading by Example

A 4-2 finish is a tall order vs. the remaining slate, but the South Bend Seven has a chance to reach their end-season goal thanks to the reemergence of Tory Jackson.

Mired in a hellacious shooting slump entering Sunday's home win over South Florida, Jackson has knocked down 16 of his last 25 shots, the vast majority under duress and when his team had nowhere else to turn, scoring 12 of Notre Dame's final 19 and 17 of the team's last 33 points in the last two contests.

When the Irish have needed a bucket of late, Jackson has found a way, but Brey's squad needs more from the duo of senior Ben Hansbrough and junior Tim Abromaitis, especially in the second half of close games. The pair connected on just two total field goals in the final 20 minutes vs. South Florida and Seton Hall. (Abro knocked down each of his eight second half free throw attempts vs. the Pirates.)

Both are capable scorers and much better outside shooters than Jackson, who boasts more fire than reliable form when asked to connect from outside the paint.

Brey has continually stated that the 2010 Irish are a team that can improve as the season progresses.

Step one toward that improvement resides in the confident shooting stroke of Abromaitis and offensive aggressiveness of Hansbrough.

One-third of the conference season remains...it's not yet too late.


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