Season To Be Proud Of

The recent three-game losing streak had taken some of the lustre away from Notre Dame's solid men's basketball campaign. But, in the final regular season analysis, this was a year full of accomplishments and promise, reports IrishEyes Magazine Managing Editor Alan Tieuli. We also provide here our Big East Awards predictions and stay with IrishEyes all next week as we report courtside from Madison Square Garden and the Big East Tournament.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

March 9, 2003

Happy Ending
Puts Solid Irish Season
In Proper Perspective

By Alan Tieuli
IrishEyes Magazine

(IE) – Isn't it nice that a 22-8 record in some circles is considered a disappointment? 

The complete body of work for Notre Dame's 2002-03 regular season is in, and while a conference championship was lost down the stretch, the effort has to be considered a solid success.  Despite losing three NCAA Tournament starters to graduation, the Irish earned their most victories pre-tournament since 1986-87, a third straight 10-victory Big East campaign, and a final RPI that will hover around the 15 range. 

After defeating Georgetown, 86-80, at the ever-friendly MCI Center in downtown D.C., Notre Dame finished 10-6 in the Big East's West Division, good for a tie for a third.  The Irish open Big East Tournament play at noon Wednesday against St. John's (15-12), and while the players may not be ecstatic about their standing, head coach Mike Brey is justifiably proud of the season. 

"Our guys, I don't want them to be down," said Brey. "But they have such high standards, they're disappointed.  I've never been one to coach from a negative standpoint.  We're more of a positive reinforcement program." 

And there is plenty of positive news to spread around.  Perhaps the Big East was lost with the three-game losing streak leading into the Georgetown game, but Notre Dame in 2002-03 put another brick in the foundation of a program that Brey says is championship driven.  The Irish succeeded in November and December with a world-class non-conference schedule and then earned double-digit conference victories. 

How difficult is it to win 10 or more games three years in a row in the Big East?  Well, three charter members of the conference – Boston College, Providence and Seton Hall – have never done it.   Pittsburgh, a member since 1982-83, hasn't either.  Neither has Rutgers or West Virginia (who joined with Notre Dame in 1995-96).  

Brey puts so much stock in conference play, in fact, that his pick for Notre Dame's best week of the season will surprise you. 

"Everybody talks about the week that was," Brey said, referring to the stretch between Dec. 2-8 when Notre Dame beat three powerhouses, Marquette, Maryland and Texas. "It was a very memorable week in the history of our program.  But to me, in order of importance, for us to go and beat Providence and BC on the road (January 21, 25) was huge in solidifying us in league play." 

Notre Dame now enters conference and NCAA Tournament play having tasted success and disappointment.  Unquestionably, the victory over Georgetown was a morale booster and the Big East Tournament set-up is challenging (St. John's, with BC waiting on Thursday) but hardly daunting.  A good run in this tournament will erase the memories of the three-game losing streak. 

Point guard Chris Thomas finished the conference season eighth in scoring (19.7) and first in assists (6.75).  He gives the Irish an opportunity to win every time out.  Matt Carroll is a lock for All-Big East, and scored in double figures every game this season.  He's suffered more bumps and bruises than any Irish player this season, and if he has any fuel left in the tank, there's an opportunity for a storybook finish to his career.  (Wouldn't it be special to see Carroll matched up against his brother Pat and St. Joseph's in the second round of the NCAA's?). 

Torin Francis looked like he hit the wall against Rutgers, but bounced back with 19 points and 11 rebounds against Syracuse.  He also had flashes of brilliance against Georgetown and his quiet confidence is unquestioned (the freshman center told IrishEyes after the Connecticut game that he felt he had a better overall game than Emeka Okafor). 

A revised rotation that featured Torrian Jones (29 minutes) and Chris Quinn (27) earning quality time versus Georgetown seemed to revitalize the Irish.  But the Irish still have room to go on the defensive end of the floor.   They finished Big East play allowing 76.5 points per game, 11th in the conference.  To put that number in perspective, no Notre Dame team since 1974-75 has allowed more points per contest. 

The defensive lapses were most evident in the three-game losing streak, where the Irish surrendered 87 points to Connecticut, an unconscionable 95 to lowly Rutgers and 92 versus Syracuse.   Brey felt that losing streak was a result of the pulsating 82-80 loss to Syracuse at the Carrier Dome on Feb. 15. 

"I think not winning in the Dome took some juice out of us," Brey said. "We put so much on the line, emotionally and physically, and it showed itself (down the stretch).  That was one we really counted on, thought we earned, and didn't get it." 

Troubling also going into tournament time is the fact that Notre Dame is only 1-5 in calendar year 2003 against ranked teams.   Brey said for Notre Dame to get to the next step, it has to raise its percentage of success in such games. 

"We've played in a lot of big games and probably been good in half of them, where the Arizonas, Kentuckys and Dukes have been good in about 80-percent of them," said Brey. "There's a pride when you come into those programs, there's a standard that has been set and the game is so mental and so psychologically that a young kid like a (Duke's J.J.) Redick or a Shelden Williams believes that this is what we are supposed to do. 

"I believe we are on the verge of that at our place in setting that standard." 

When that standard is reached, a 22-8 record and third place conference standing may very well be considered unacceptable.  For now, though, despite the glitches down the stretch, a Notre Dame fan should be quite pleased with the season. 

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BIG EAST AWARDS:  With all results now in, here are IrishEyes' annual predictions for the major Big East Awards.  One conference precinct will be most pleased with these: 

Coach of the YearAfter Louis Orr stopped whining about the officiating, he did a masterful job of turning around the Seton Hall season.  Al Skinner also deserves serious consideration for earning the top seed in the East Division despite having only seven able-bodied, capable players.  But the nod has to go to Jim Boeheim, who's Syracuse team is a legitimate National Championship contender.  Not only are the Orangemen the most feared offensive team in the conference, but they are also playing with a level of intelligence and unselfishness beyond their years. 

Player of the Year – IrishEyes absolutely agrees with Brey's assessment that this award should go to a player who has kept his team in the championship hunt all season.  We'll go with co-Players of the Year – freshman Carmelo Anthony of Syracuse and senior Troy Bell of Boston College.  No Big East freshman forward has quickened the pulse like Anthony in recent years. Bell was absolutely remarkable the final 10 games of the regular season, practically willing a dysfunctional team to a division co-title. 

Rookie of the YearCarmelo Anthony in a landslide, though seven others deserve close consideration for All-Rookie team: BC's Craig Smith, Connecticut's Rashad Anderson, Notre Dame's Torin Francis, Providence's Donnie McGrath, Kelly Whitney from Seton Hall, Gerry McNamara of Syracuse and Kevin Pittsnogle of West Virginia. 

Most Improved PlayerSyracuse's Hakim Warrick.  From a situational starter in 2002 to an almost-certain double-double performer in each Big East game, Warrick is a match-up nightmare for any team.  

Defensive Player of the Year – Did you happen to see what Connecticut did to Boston College Saturday?  No-one wants to play the Huskies in the Big East or NCAA Tournaments.  Emeka Okafor is the best interior defender in the country, an absolute demoralizer in the way he can nullify effective possessions with athletic blocks and shot alterations.   

All Big East First Team The Big East chose seven for the first team last year, but had chosen five the previous six years.  Our top five are: Carmelo Anthony, Troy Bell, Matt Carroll, Emeka Okafor and Georgetown's Mike Sweetney.  If the Big East coaches were to choose seven, we suggest it would be best to add Marcus Hatten of St. John's and Brandin Knight of Pittsburgh.  The most difficult omission is Chris Thomas, but how can a remarkable Pittsburgh team be completely blanked in the awards?  The Panthers finished with six players in double figures and Knight's leadership was outstanding.

(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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