Notre Dame’s three straight wins over defending national champion Connecticut represent a convenient pre-game talking point.
The fact that the Irish have won eight of their last nine home games vs. ranked teams offers hope for a January that includes opponents ranked #16, #1, and #22 at present. And the team’s 29 straight victories inside the Purcell Pavilion is relevant to the 2012 squad's task at hand: simply put, Notre Dame is great at home and average or worse elsewhere and can't afford too many South Bend slips.
But the 2012 squad’s surprising 3-1 start in the Big East spending the better part of the season’s first two months absorbing knockout blows from a challenging out-of-conference slate has at least one person extremely close to the program shaking his head.
“If you’d have told me in the locker room in Spokane after the game (against Gonzaga)…” head coach Mike Brey said incredulously with ample shocked facial expressions to drive home his point. “That we’d be 3-1 in the league? (more stunned looks) But I’m proud of this group. They’re getting confident.”
The Irish should be confident vs. Saturday’s blueblood opponent. Brey’s 2010 squad (10-8 in conference) defeated Connecticut on Senior Day, 58-50, with outgoing team captain Tory Jackson outplaying some sophomore named Kemba Walker that evening.
His 2011 group, 14-4 in league play, swept the eventual national champion Huskies, winning 73-70 in South Bend, and 70-67 in Storrs to remain in contention for the regular season league title on the season’s last game day.
Neither the Huskies nor Irish players that take the floor Saturday will closely resemble their respective teams from 2011. UConn returns plenty of familiar faces but Walker was the dominant controlling force, and he took his act to the NBA after graduating a year ahead of schedule. Four of Notre Dame’s five starters from last year’s battles have graduated or are sidelined with season-ending injury, the latter pertaining to Connecticut native and pre-season first team All Big East pick Tim Abromaitis.
But after losing Abromaitis in mid-November to a torn ACL, and after a trying off-season in which Notre Dame inexplicably lost one expected starter (Carleton Scott to overseas basketball leagues) and lost the services, at least temporarily, of his top incoming recruit Eric Katenda (the 6’8” forward lost vision in one eye during a pickup game), its apparent Brey has forged an identity for his young group and helped them move past the “what could have been?” scenarios dominating non-conference conversations.
“We’ve been able to hang in their and have each other’s back when we’ve taken punches,” Brey noted Wednesday. “We were tested in that area in November and December pretty darn good and we’ll be tested again in this league. We’ve played together for awhile now…resiliency through 18 league games: not getting too high; not getting too panicked is a key demeanor to have. We have to remember that.”
To continue along their unlikely NCAA Tournament march (seven wins in the next 14 games are needed), the Irish must also remember where their bread is buttered: on the Joyce Center Floor, where 41 of the last 46 Big East visitors have exited in defeat.
“One of the things I tried to make a point of when we won our first game,” said Brey of the opening win vs. Mississippi Valley State in early November.” I said, ‘You guys are invested in the streak now.’ I wanted to throw that in their lap, this particular group. And certainly (beating) Pittsburgh helped that.
“They’re really invested in it and they don’t feel it as a burden; they feel it as a confidence-giver. That’s how I’ve tried to look at it. The last one, when we got to about 35 – I felt fidgety,” he admitted of a nation-best streak that ended at 45 games vs., fittingly, Connecticut. “But we’re confident here and I try not to do anything different to change my routine or habits on game day to mess it up,” he joked.
Senior Scott Martin, juniors Jack Cooley, and sophomore Eric Atkins played a major role in last year’s undefeated home slate. 2011-12 newcomers Jerian Grant, Alex Dragicevich, and Pat Connaughton have already come through in three contested home battles this season. Even junior Joey Brooks, a player who’s first consistent court time has arrived this winter, earned his stripes, performing well in relief vs. an eventual Final Four squad from West Virginia in January 2010.
The nine healthy Irish (backup center Tom Knight and Mike Broghammer round out the group) likely have one shot at an NCAA bid this season: their home court success. Notre Dame need not finish 9-0 through conference play in South Bend, but 7-2 might be mandatory considering the road schedule and program’s general struggles away from home.
Saturday’s game with Connecticut is the toughest home test of the young conference season to date. The toughest possible waits next Saturday vs. undefeated and No. 1-ranked Syracuse. Two more foes (Marquette and West Virginia) present matchup problems galore, and Providence – a gimme over the last few seasons – has shown improvement under new head coach Ed Cooley.
There’s a long road to ho, but the fact that Irish fans and media could entertain an NCAA bubble discussion at this point is a credit to Brey, his staff, and the undermanned roster.
A 4-1 start for these scrappy Irish seemed impossible as recently as Christmas Day. So too would be the likely end-season finish that would likely result.