Win over BC a good start

Originally Published: February 9, 2005
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is no fool.

Say what you want about the RPI and strength of schedule and conference record and all those things our bracket guru Joe Lunardi has bouncing through his head. On the day before the Irish hosted then-undefeated Boston College, Brey was talking buzz.

"It counts more than the math," Brey said Monday. "There's a buzz about them being 20-0. That would be a helluva win on our resume."

After playing in the NIT a year ago, there has been a lot of talk from the Irish coaches and players about getting back to the NCAA Tournament. It's been the team's No. 1 goal this season. While the victory over Boston College certainly helps Notre Dame, there is still work to be done.

After all, a 14-6 overall record, a 6-4 mark in the Big East and an RPI of 40 is still pretty much the definition of a bubble team.

The Irish, however, have a chance to change that.

As this college basketball season enters the final month of the regular season -- only 32 days of hoop watching remain until Selection Sunday -- many teams don't control their own destiny. Sure, everybody except for the Ivy Leaguers have a chance to win their conference tournament, but not a lot of teams can pick up eye-catching victories and play their way into the Tournament.

Chris Thomas
Thomas had 19 points and nine assists vs. BC.

That's what makes Notre Dame's situation interesting. If the Irish and Marquette get in, the berths clearly will be earned. If they don't and make a return trip to the NIT, they will have had their chances.

Because even though Notre Dame has played Connecticut, Syracuse and Boston College in the past 11 days, the slate of games that Brey describes as the Big East's A-plus schedule doesn't let up. This weekend, the Irish play at Pittsburgh and the rest of the schedule reads like this: vs. Georgetown; at Providence; at Connecticut; vs. UCLA; vs. Rutgers and a home game against the Panthers.

That's five games against teams in the top 50 in the RPI and only two against teams with a losing record.

"We're going to have no problem getting the kids ready to play," Brey said. "We're going to have a lot of opportunities to improve our resume and we don't have to run the table."

As Selection Sunday approaches, expect to hear Brey talking up Notre Dame's Big East schedule, one he touts as the toughest of any team in the league. He has a point -- the five league opponents Notre Dame plays twice this season are: Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, Villanova and Georgetown. Those teams are currently a combined 81-23 this season.

No other Big East team plays five opponents with a combined record that good. By comparison, Syracuse's five are 63-39; Pittsburgh's are 71-33; Connecticut's are 74-31; Villanova's are 69-35 and Boston College's opponents are a Big East-worst 55-46. That's much of the reason why Brey thinks a 9-7 or even an 8-8 league record (along with a decent showing at the Big East tournament) should be enough to get the Irish their third tournament invitation in the past four years.

"We're forcing (the selection committee) to evaluate league strength of schedule and non-league strength of schedule," Brey said.

Outside of conference play, Notre Dame lacks a truly marquee victory. The Irish have a victory over Indiana along with a loss to Michigan that looks worse now than it did back in December. If Notre Dame has something in its favor, it is that this is pretty much a repeat of a year ago. Last season, the Irish played Pitt, Connecticut (three times), Syracuse and Providence (when they were good) at the end of the season, winning two games against ranked opponents.

At the same time, Brey thinks this Irish team is better than last season's for three simple reasons: Torin Francis, defense and balance.

A year ago, Francis missed the final eight games of the regulars season, the Big East tournament and the NIT because of a back injury.

Brey also thinks this group is his best defensively since taking the Notre Dame job. Opponents are scoring only 60.3 points per game against the Irish, second-best in the Big East. In Tuesday's victory over Boston College, the Eagles never looked truly comfortable against Notre Dame's zone.

The BC game was also an example of Notre Dame's newfound balance. While this is still Chris Thomas' Irish team, the senior guard no longer has to do everything. A year ago, if Thomas didn't score, Notre Dame didn't usually win. Thomas' scoring average is down by about six points per game this season, but he's third in the Big East in assists. That's the result of Notre Dame having more options. Colin Falls (seven three-pointers against Boston College) is scoring more, as is Chris Quinn. Inside, Arizona transfer Dennis Latimore is taking some of the pressure off of Francis.

"Chris (Thomas) is probably the most overanalyzed player by our fans and media," Brey said. "Maybe he stayed in (school) too long ... But this year he feels he can quarterback and distribute more because he's got more help around him. The big guys have gotten in a rhythm.

"I think a point guard should be measured like coaches -- by wins and losses. We had never been a player in the Big East until this guy got here."

Now, in the stretch of his senior season, Thomas will try to get Notre Dame back in the NCAA Tournament. Can it happen? The Irish will certainly have their chances.

MARQUETTE IN SAME SITUATION

While Notre Dame will work its way through the heart of the Big East, Marquette is facing a similar situation in Conference USA.

If the season ended today, Tom Crean's team -- at 16-6 overall, 4-5 in Conference USA and No. 62 in the RPI -- would be very uneasy watching the selection show. Marquette, though, has a chance to play its way into the field after going to the NIT last season.

Tonight's game at TCU is the beginning of a key stretch for the Golden Eagles. After playing the Horned Frogs, Marquette has games at East Carolina (a difficult venue), against Louisville, against DePaul and at Cincinnati.

One thing in Marquette's favor is the improving health of point guard Travis Diener. Diener, who Crean said hasn't been fully healthy since Dec. 6, came off the bench in Saturday's victory at Southern Mississippi.

"Hopefully he'll continue to get better," Crean said. "He's such a big part of our team."

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

ALSO SEE