Irish host Kentucky in a must-win game under a national eye
Andrew Soukup | Friday, January 23, 2004
If history is any indication, one might think that Notre Dame – which has lost nine straight games to Kentucky and all four nationally televised games this year – has no chance at beating the No. 9 Wildcats.But perhaps the presence of the Irish team that ended UCLA’s NCAA record 88-game winning streak might counter that bad karma.”At halftime,” said Irish coach Digger Phelps, who coached the 1974 Notre Dame team, “we are going to get the place fired up so we beat Kentucky.”With the way 9-5 Notre Dame has played at home lately, the Irish will welcome any help they can get. The Irish are only 6-3 in South Bend this year, including an RPI-damaging loss to Central Michigan in December, and will return to the Joyce Center for the first time since they suffered their worst home loss in the Mike Brey era against Syracuse Saturday.Moreover, Notre Dame has struggled in nationally-televised games. In addition to its four losses this season, the Irish dropped its last two of the 2002-03 campaign.But Brey doesn’t look at Notre Dame’s TV-game struggles as an indicator of the Irish wilting under the spotlight.”One of the things you have to look at is who you’ve played,” Brey said. “We’ve played some great teams. Those national TV games are supposed to be against great teams.”It seems fitting that CBS’ Dick Enberg will call Sunday’s game that features the reunion of the 1974 Notre Dame team. Enberg was also courtside at the Joyce Center 30 years ago for Notre Dame’s historic 71-70 win over UCLA.In fact, some college basketball experts considered that game between No. 1 UCLA and No. 2 Notre Dame the game that made college basketball viable for regular season viewing.Brey and Phelps initially discussed doing something to honor the 30th anniversary of that game last fall. The effort was part of Brey’s desire to connect current Notre Dame basketball to its tradition of the past and marked Phelps’ goal to reunite that team. The team will sit in the first few rows of the student section at the north end of the Joyce Center, and at halftime, the final three minutes of the 1974 game between Notre Dame and UCLA will be shown.”It’ll be a heck of an atmosphere,” Brey said. “But I think it’s good for our students and our players to plug them into [that history].”Despite the aura of history surrounding the game, Brey knows that he desperately needs his team to focus on the present. Although the Irish have a difficult stretch ahead, which includes five of their next nine games against ranked foes, Brey believes that gives the Irish an excellent opportunity to enhance Notre Dame’s fledgling NCAA Tournament resume.But beating Kentucky, who has outscored the Irish by an average of 18 points in its last nine games, is a daunting task.A quick, agile team that revolves around guard Gerald Fitch and forward Erik Daniels, the Wildcats score most of their points by slashing to the basket. But where Kentucky is at its best, Brey said, is when the Wildcats are generating points off turnovers in transition. The Wildcats average a 38th-best-nationally 9.5 steals a game.However, the Irish can counter Kentucky’s aggressive defense with Chris Thomas and Chris Quinn, who can both handle the ball equally well and help Notre Dame avoid turnovers on which the Wildcats are so adept at capitalizing.And when it comes to neutralizing Kentucky’s offense, Brey said the Irish have to remain committed to playing solid defense. “That should be the focus for us the rest of the season,” Brey said, adding that Notre Dame’s starters may spend up to 90 percent of practice working on defense.”This is a tough team to prepare for in that they expect to win,” the Irish coach said. “They have the frame of mind where they say, ‘We’re gonna get this sucker.’ Preparing for that psyche is tough.” He didn’t have to add that beating it is even tougher.But if the Irish need any inspiration for finding ways to beat legendary programs Sunday, they only need to glance at the front row of the student section.