February 10, 2006

No looking ahead

Consider the context.

For most basketball programs, speculating on a postseason of any kind minutes after ending a five-game losing streak sounds certifiable. For Notre Dame, even with the Irish still stuck in 14th-place in the Big East, why not figure what it will take to get to the conference's 12-team tournament in New York?

Talking postseason play after pounding middling Rutgers 90-63 on Wednesday at the Joyce Center might sound absurd, but what about this season hasn't been? College basketball's best 11-10 team, truly an undistinguished distinction, the Irish entered the week losers of five straight by a combined 11 points, a stat that doesn't do Notre Dame's heartbreak justice.

Still looking up at a trip to Madison Square Garden next month, the Irish should at least prefer their view heading into a week break before hosting South Florida on Feb. 15.

Against Rutgers, the Irish got unprecedented production from Torin Francis and Rick Cornett with the senior forwards combing for 35 points, only the second time they've both hit double figures all season. Defensively, the Irish limited the Scarlet Knights to 40 percent shooting. That's an aberration Mike Brey probably can't turn into a trend, but he'd love to make defensive intensity more than a once-a-month event.

Notre Dame ranks last in the Big East in scoring defense at 78.5 points per game.

"You need to go into the locker room and smile and pat each other on the back a little bit and feel that way," Brey said after the win. "That's as good a therapy as anything."

The upcoming schedule won't hurt either with Notre Dame getting a few shots at some of the league's other struggling programs. The Irish close with home dates against South Florida, Marquette and DePaul with road trips to Seton Hall, Connecticut and Providence. Take the No. 1 Huskies out of the mix and that's a group with a combined 18-30 league record.

Notre Dame scratching its way to New York means sweeping that home slate and taking at least one road game, preferably a March 1 trip to Providence, giving the Irish the tie-breaker over the Friars. There's a good chance a pack of teams will finish league play at 6-10, with tiebreakers determining which programs get to Madison Square Garden with that record and which ones go home.

"We don't think about that," said Russell Carter, who's averaging 20.5 points his last two games. "We think we've got to win the next one. With the type of season we have, we can't look past any team. Any speculation, winning four or five games, that's up to y'all."

If the Irish slide into the Big East Tournament as the No. 12 seed, it means a first-round date with the No. 5 seed (Pittsburgh and Seton Hall are tied at 6-3 for that distinction).

Brey could care less about looking ahead, even if it provides him reprieve from figuring out how a 2-8 Big East team played four of the league's five ranked teams down to the final possession. Notre Dame missed a last-second shot to lose at No. 9 West Virginia (8-0) and gave up an offensive rebound put back to lose at home to No. 4 Villanova (8-1). Notre Dame took both No. 14 Pittsburgh (6-3) and No. 15 Georgetown (7-2) to double overtime before falling.

"[The players] have been very business-like with their approach to everything," Brey said. "That's why we compete every night. We go for it. There's no sugarcoating this thing. We know we're digging out of a hole."

Chris Quinn admitted the thought of what it takes for a New York invite creeps into all the players' heads, but considering the season Notre Dame has already endured, there's little use crunching the numbers required for a MSG trip.

"I think to some extent everybody does that but at the same time that can do nothing for you," Quinn said. "It's really important for us to take it one game at a time. If we start thinking we've got to win this, we've got to win that, then it starts playing with our mind a little bit."

This season probably already has.



 

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