A win Friday at home over lowly Providence (3-13) will clinch a double bye in next week's Big East Tournament. In fact, the Irish can still finish *third with either a loss by Georgetown at Marquette this week, or two Marquette losses (the Golden Eagles travel to contending Cincinnati before hosting the Hoyas).
Such advantageous seeding – three games in three days rather than four in four – is essential if the Irish are to reach their program goal of a Big East Championship, as Mike Brey's bench-challenged bunch will likely struggle to find its legs in either scheduling scenario.
But before the Irish dream about extended tournament runs, either in Manhattan or a site to be determined in the NCAA's, they first must rediscover why they're in this unlikely position in the first place:
They have to get better.
*Note: A third-place finish guarantees avoidance of the nation's #2 team, Syracuse, until the Big East Conference Finals.)
Speed BumpsFor the better part of two months, Notre Dame generally found a way for its grit to meet execution. The two basketball necessities converged either early (Syracuse, at Connecticut), late (Louisville, West Virginia, DePaul, Villanova, St. John's), or throughout a given game.
Win or lose, the 2012 Irish had always made a game of it, likely gaining valuable experience from each situation, and ending the day a better team than it began. That is, until last night at the Verizon Center.
The team that somehow met its stated goal of "getting better every day," appeared to regress, or at least press – a Cardinal Sin on the road in conference play. Tired legs could be an excuse, as the Irish faced their first Saturday-Monday turnaround in more than a month–not coincidentally its last two-game losing streak occurred on a Saturday-Monday turnaround, too.
They won nine straight thereafter, until this latest 48-hour switch reared its ugly head.
But if these Irish think Saturday-Monday is taxing, next week's potential string of games in Manhattan could be hellacious. No the greater culprit in yesterday's muckling at the hands of supposed peer Georgetown was a surprising lack of focus, intensity, basketball smarts, and of course execution.
Usually it's an opposing fan base wondering why the Irish keep executing in half-court sets. Or why the big guy in the middle keeps winning the fight for the ball. Or wondering who these wunderkind guards are that just found a way to beat their supposedly superior squad.
Last night, it was Irish Nation left searching for answers.
As in, how could all-Big East candidate Jack Cooley play 25 minutes without securing a rebound? How could no Irish player score in double digits when the starters log so many minutes? What happened to the team's generally sound help defense? How could a team so focused for so long seem so overwhelmed?
And of course, "Why can't we hit a shot?!"
The simple answer is that they're a youth-filled, still-learning, likely still-improving basketball team that played poorly when it was tired and challenged on an opponent's home floor. I'm surprised it didn't happen more often in league play.
Consider how often the tables have been turned this season. Georgetown lost at Seton Hall by 18. Marquette lost at Notre Dame by 17. Louisville lost by 31 at Providence.
And Syracuse–2012 college basketball royalty–was almost never within striking distance of Notre Dame from opening tip to court-rushing final buzzer. How many teams have been within striking distance of the 29-1 Orange this season?
Each of the Big East's best bounced back after head-shaking losses this season.
Notre Dame should too.