Commentary

ND still upbeat despite missed chance

Originally Published: February 27, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- The game was over. Connecticut was using a timeout in the final two seconds so the fans could applaud the seniors and to give its walk-ons a chance to appear in the Huskies' 72-65 win over Notre Dame on senior day.

[+] EnlargeRyan Ayers
David Butler II/US PresswireA win at UConn would have been a huge boost to Notre Dame's tourney hopes.

But Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey didn't waste a single second in the huddle. He made sure he reminded his team what would be at stake Monday night when they host Villanova: An eighth Big East win and a chance to go to the NCAA tournament.

"We're still in position," Brey said after the loss. "We had to get one of these two [at Connecticut or home against Villanova]. There's no question that people watching had to like this. I think we're thoroughly being discussed."

Sometimes making the NCAAs can come down to a single game, and even then, there is no guarantee. For Notre Dame, beating Villanova on Monday night would put the Irish in position to get a bid (assuming the Irish beat St. John's at home Friday to close the regular season).

"We're playing well at the right time," Brey said. "In January, you couldn't look at us. But if we get to 9-9, our 9-9 is going to be looked at differently [than other teams'], just like Georgetown's 8-10 [if the Hoyas win their last two games] will be different than others'."

Notre Dame passes the eye test. Watch the Irish and they certainly look like an NCAA team. They played with the soon-to-be-No. 1 Huskies for every possession, taking the lead in the second half, hitting running floaters, reverse layups and 3s to spread the Huskies out defensively.

But they didn't get the win. The Irish still stand at a pedestrian 16-12, 7-9 in the Big East.

Their 33-point victory over Louisville on Feb. 12 that snapped a seven-game losing streak certainly grabs your attention. Beating Villanova, like Georgetown did Saturday in Philadelphia, would do wonders for Notre Dame's profile.

When the question is before the NCAA selection committee as to whether Notre Dame is one of the 34 best remaining teams, then the answer should be yes, according to Notre Dame's Kyle McAlarney and even Connecticut's A.J. Price.

This is, of course, assuming the Irish can win their last two home games and not fall to one of the bottom four teams in the first round of the Big East tournament.

"Absolutely, without question, we're [one of the best 34]," McAlarney said. "We're one of the best offensive teams in the country. When we defend, we can play with anybody."

The Huskies had to gut out the win Saturday. In a contrast of styles, Connecticut got to the free throw line (12-of-23) while the Irish spread them out (only 1-of-5 at the line). Notre Dame's only chance was to spread the court, and either drive or launch a 3-pointer (8-of-27) while the Huskies attempted to ride Hasheem Thabeet (16 points, 11 boards, eight blocks) and Jeff Adrien (25 points, nine boards) to the win, while making only 2 of 8 treys.

"The way they are playing now, I think they are worthy of an NCAA bid," Price said. "But they did put themselves in a tough situation with a seven-game losing streak. It's hard to say. But I wouldn't be surprised if they went to the Big East tournament and won two or three games."

The low-point for the Irish came at UCLA, the last of the seven losses. The 10 a.m. local start time didn't help the sleepwalking Irish as they were blitzed from the start. Brey, who is one of the more mild-mannered coaches, lit into his team, responding with multiple practices a day, including early-morning sessions. The message was clear and the Irish followed that game with a 33-point win over Louisville.

"Coach was great because he kept the faith in us and knew we had it in all of us," Notre Dame guard Tory Jackson said. "We fed off his intensity. He was still confident."

The Irish weren't fretting Saturday's loss. They knew they pushed UConn to the final minutes. If the seven-game slide had been three or even four, then a loss here wouldn't have the same significance. But the Irish can't erase portions of their résumé. The blemishes are there for the selection committee to dissect. Win the final two games, have a good showing in the Big East tournament, and Notre Dame may sneak into the field.

"We're in a good rhythm now," McAlarney said. "We found our identity, of moving teams around offensively [by spreading out]. We've realized we just need to trust each other. We swing the ball around, find the open guy and knock down shots. We're as confident as ever."

If that's the case, then the Irish should win their final two home games and, as Brey has said for weeks, "be in the discussion and make this interesting."

[+] EnlargeJon Scheyer
AP Photo/Don PetersenJon Scheyer and Duke denied Virginia Tech a pivotal ACC win.

What else did we learn?

In the A-10: Dayton is still very much in play with a win over Temple. Had the Flyers followed up consecutive road losses to Saint Louis and Rhode Island with a home loss to Temple, then Dayton's once-lock-like status for a bid would have been frail. Dayton can now go into Xavier with some momentum at 24-5, 10-4 and have a real chance to win the A-10 with a sweep of the Musketeers (23-5, 11-3).

In the ACC: Virginia Tech is in trouble. The Hokies blew a chance to beat Duke and now stare at games against North Carolina and at Florida State as they attempt to finish at least .500 in the ACC. Virginia Tech (17-11, 7-7) still has significant ACC road wins at Wake Forest, Miami and Clemson. But that might not be enough if the Hokies are below .500. Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said the Hokies had to be above .500 in the ACC earlier this week.

Give Duke credit for its toughness. The Blue Devils had lost two straight and were facing a stretch in which they were playing three of four games on the road, with the one home game against a Wake Forest team that beat them earlier in the season. What did Duke do? The Blue Devils swept all four games, including wins this past week in hostile environments at Maryland and Virginia Tech.

Florida State isn't going to fold. The Seminoles are going to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in coach Leonard Hamilton's tenure. Beating Clemson gave the Seminoles a sweep of the Tigers and a 9-5 record in the ACC (22-7 overall). Duke in Durham and Virginia Tech at home are next, but the Seminoles have four ACC road wins, which will be hard to turn down.

Clemson, meanwhile, has the look of a team that could go far in the NCAAs. The Tigers are dangerous when they make perimeter shots, even though they may not crack the top four in the ACC.

Virginia could be a spoiler in Atlanta. The Cavaliers aren't lying down. Virginia beat Clemson and Virginia Tech at home earlier this season and then gave Miami fits before losing by seven on Thursday. They pushed Wake Forest for most of the game in Saturday's 70-60 loss.

In the Big 12: If you questioned for one second who the national player of the year was while Blake Griffin was out three halves with a concussion, then you haven't been paying attention. Griffin, who dove over the scorer's table for a loose ball and took another hard fall on his back, returned Saturday, scoring 20 points and grabbing 19 boards in the Sooners' win at Texas Tech. Oklahoma may not win the Big 12 if Kansas wins its final two games, but the Sooners will be a No. 1 seed.

Texas A&M is still very much alive for a bid. The Aggies (21-8, 7-7) have won four straight after a three-game slide. They have to close out by winning at Colorado and then may need to beat Missouri for a bid.

Oklahoma State needs a strong finish. The Cowboys are ahead of the Aggies in the standings at 8-6, but they don't have the two marquee nonconference wins like A&M does (LSU and Arizona). Oklahoma State (19-9) has won five straight and needs to beat Kansas State and at least have a good showing at Oklahoma to close the season for a chance.

[+] EnlargeBlake Griffin
AP Photo/Lubbock Avalanche-Journal,Zach LongBlake Griffin picked up right where he left off in his return against Texas Tech, scoring 20 points and grabbing 19 rebounds.

Texas' road woes continue. Save a comeback win in overtime at Colorado, Texas has lost three of its past four Big 12 road games, the most recent a 68-59 setback at Oklahoma State on Saturday. Games against Baylor and at Kansas are left for Texas, which may be heading closer to wearing road jerseys in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

In the Big East: Georgetown has more than just a pulse. Their win at Villanova put the Hoyas at 6-10 in the Big East. Win the final two games to get to 8-10 and win a first-round game in the Big East tournament, and the Hoyas will be on the board to get a bid with two bankable big-time wins over Connecticut and Memphis.

DePaul is going to go 0-18 in the Big East. The Blue Demons lost their final home game to St. John's and finish the regular season with games at West Virginia and Georgetown.

In the Big Ten: Penn State was one shot away from blowing its NCAA chances. Jamelle Cornley's dunk with 56 seconds left held off Indiana 61-58. Lose to the last-place Hoosiers and the Nittany Lions' (20-9, 9-7) résumé would have had a wart that might have been hard to lance. Penn State now needs to take down Illinois at home and maybe Iowa on the road to close out the season to feel secure.

Ohio State looks vulnerable. Purdue smacked Ohio State (18-9, 8-8) by 25, and the Buckeyes now face two winnable but possibly must-win games at Iowa and against Northwestern if they want to sleep easier in two weeks.

In the MWC: BYU likely cemented a second MWC bid by beating Utah at home to split the season series. But the Cougars still need to win out by taking down Wyoming in Laramie and Air Force at home for a potential 24-6, 12-4 finish. Winning the conference is still within reach since Utah (20-8, 11-3) has to go to New Mexico and hosts TCU.

In the Pac-10: Washington State is a serious threat to win the Pac-10 tournament. Cougs coach Tony Bennett said he was confident his team could be trouble after winning at UCLA. Wazzu swept the Arizona schools, including a senior moment for Taylor Rochestie that he'll never forget. Rochestie made a 3-pointer in overtime to beat Arizona State on Saturday. The Cougars (16-13, 8-9) will play in the postseason, something that was in doubt two weeks ago.

Washington will likely be at least a No. 4 seed. The Huskies (22-7, 13-4) won a share of the Pac-10 title and may play in the first and second rounds in Portland, something that wasn't a lock a few weeks ago. Senior Jon Brockman finished with 19 points and 11 boards in Saturday's win over Arizona. This is in here to point out how Brockman continues to be one of the most consistent big men in the country yet his publicity pales in comparison to players in the Big 12, ACC and Big East.

USC is likely out of the NCAA chase after getting swept in the Bay Area. The Trojans (16-12, 7-9) could sweep the Oregon schools next week, but 9-9 in the Pac-10 this season without a win over Washington or UCLA isn't going to stand out.

In the SEC: LSU (25-4, 13-1) is the class of the SEC. That was clear in September after a visit to Baton Rouge. For some reason, it didn't stand out until the conference season began. Kentucky (19-10, 8-6), which has lost three of four, better beat Georgia at home and have a good showing at Florida to close out the season.

Auburn coach Jeff Lebo will challenge South Carolina's Darrin Horn and LSU's Trent Johnson for SEC Coach of the Year. The Tigers won at Mississippi State to improve to 8-6 (19-10 overall). Auburn has won six of seven games, with the only loss at LSU. The Tigers close the season out at Alabama and against LSU at home. Auburn has a chance to get 10 SEC wins and finish in sole possession of second place in the SEC West. Who had that in the preseason?

In the CAA: The Colonial released its conference tournament pairings late Saturday night and it should be one of the most competitive tournaments of any one-bid league. VCU, the top seed, will likely need to beat rival and No. 4 seed Old Dominion in one semifinal, while No. 2 George Mason could face No. 3 Northeastern in the other semifinal, assuming the Huskies can beat No. 6 Drexel (which will face No. 11 Towson in the first round) in the quarterfinals. The semifinals are March 8 and the final March 9 in Richmond, Va.

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com