To say the least, it has been an up and down season for Mike Brey and his University of Notre Dame men's basketball team. The Fighting Irish began the season on a tear, winning 11 of their first 13 games, and climbing to as high as seventh in the national rankings.
Then, as soon as the calendar turned to January, the swoon in South Bend began. It started with an inexplicable road loss to St. John's, followed by a couple of nice bounce-back wins over Georgetown and Seton Hall at home. The Irish followed that up with seven straight losses, punctuated by an embarrassing 26-point loss at UCLA on national television with effectively knocked them out of any discussions regarding the NCAA tournament.
Over the past week, though, Brey's team has shown signs of life. A Thursday night thrashing of Louisville gave ND its swagger back, which carried over to a 10-point win against pesky South Florida on Sunday. This week, a two-game road trip to West Virginia and Providence provides an opportunity for Notre Dame to force itself back into the tournament talk if it were able to pick up a pair of wins.
"We've got an opportunity to make a move, and I mentioned that after the (USF) game yesterday," Brey said on Monday. "It could be a great week for us. You have one team that's ahead of you in the standings with a 13 RPI (West Virginia, actually at 16) and another team ahead of you in the standings with about a 60 RPI (the Friars)."
The key to the Fighting Irish getting their swagger back, according to Brey, is that during the losing streak, the mantra was to focus on one game at a time, even after the rock-bottom trip to Pauley Pavilion. Even with that rallying cry, it felt good to win again over the past five days.
"I think one of the things we've done since I've been here is my demeanor has tried to be as even keel as possible," Brey explained. "Obviously January was a tough stretch, but we did need to celebrate a little bit this weekend and remember what it felt like to come in the locker room (with a win)."
Carrying that winning momentum over to Morgantown, however, is another story. The Mountaineers have held serve at home for most of the year, with the only losses coming to Top 10 foes Pitt and Connecticut.
Wednesday's matchup will feature strength on strength. The Fighting Irish lead the Big East in virtually every three-point shooting category, making 216 of their 536 attempts, a clip of better than 40 percent. Only Cincinnati, Louisville and Providence have more attempts. Nobody, though, has made more or a higher percentage from downtown than Notre Dame.
By comparison, West Virginia is first in the league in three-point field goal percentage defense. Opponents have made just 27 percent of their attempts from behind the three-point line against WVU. A big reason for that is the fact that the Mountaineers pressure the ball more and arguably better than any team in the league.
To counter that, Brey hopes his team will be able to get out and run a little bit in transition, where the likes of Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers can get clean looks from downtown without letting West Virginia settle into its suffocating half court man-to-man defense.
"We've got to run," Brey said. "Our group has to get into transition so you don't have to play against the set defenses in our league because we don't want to walk it up and grind it all the time. To do that, you have to get defensive stops. That's something that we've done the past two games."
Brey is quite impressed by several West Virginia players.
"(Devin Ebanks) is an NBA prospect just the stuff you watch," Brey said. "He's a young guy that has a chance to go off every night. An amazingly talented young man. Butler is going off. Ruoff can go off at anytime, and (Bryant) has played well for them. They're hot right now, and that may have been their best performance on Friday night (in a 21-point win over Villanova)."
Offensively, the Mountaineers are similar to both U of L and USF, which should give ND's players a little bit of a familiarity factor when preparing for the trip to Morgantown.
"The one thing West Virginia does is they will grind you up with a lot of big, heavy screens like Louisville or South Florida," said the former University of Delaware head coach. "A lot of curling action. You're looking at a similar style offensively to what we just saw."
In addition to his four trips to Morgantown as head coach at Notre Dame, Brey also played in the Coliseum in his lone year at The George Washington University, which – along with WVU – was a member of the old Eastern Eight at the time. West Virginia won that February 1982 game against the Colonials by a final of 52-37. Brey was credited with four points and three assists in the loss.
"When I played at GW in the old Eastern Eight, we came to Morgantown and that was my lasting memory when I first came into the Big East," he said.
"It's always a tough place to play, and I think they get a special edge when the Irish come to town. It is a great college basketball atmosphere. They have super fans."