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Irish ready to rumble

Joe Hettler | Friday, March 5, 2004

This season, even the top seeds in the Big East tournament don’t get an easy draw.The conference has so many quality teams that even the higher seeds could exit the tournament quickly.”It’s really an up-for-grabs year,” Irish coach Muffet McGraw said. “If you look at the No. 2-8 teams, it’s a tough game no matter who you have to play.”Notre Dame finished the regular season 12-4 in the conference and earned a second-place finish behind Connecticut. The top four teams in the conference receive a bye into the second round. Villanova finished at No. 3, while Miami is No. 4. “No one has ever won without the bye,” McGraw said. “So that’s really critical.”Notre Dame faces the winner of the No. 7 Rutgers versus No. 10 Seton Hall first-round game. The Irish have lost to both teams in the regular season. In other first-round action, No. 5 Boston College faces No. 12 Syracuse, No. 8 Virginia Tech takes on No. 9 Georgetown and No. 6 West Virginia plays No. 11 St. John’s.Eight of the 12 teams in the tournament are contending for an NCAA Tournament berth. To put into perspective how good the conference is, No. 8 Virginia Tech is 21-6 this season and was ranked for several weeks. “This is certainly the deepest the conference has been,” McGraw said. “It’s amazing how competitive it is. In a first-round game we’re probably going to play Rutgers, who was picked second in the conference this year.Notre Dame will rely on its tough defense to travel deep into the tournament. The Irish have held 10 of their last 14 opponents under 40 percent shooting and are 8-2 when accomplishing this feat. Notre Dame has also held its opponents to 59 points a game. The biggest question mark for Notre Dame is its ability to play away from the Joyce Center. All nine of the Irish losses have come on the road this season, while the team is 13-0 at home. Jacqueline Batteast has been the leader on both the offensive and defensive end for the Irish. She averages 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds. Megan Duffy could be Big East Most Improved Player after scoring 10.6 points and running the Notre Dame offense well. The Irish are a virtual lock for an NCAA Tournament berth after beating seven top-25 teams during the season. Heading into the conference tournament, Notre Dame will look to improve its seeding.But with this year’s conference, getting any wins in the tournament will be impressive.”It’s just been a really good year in the conference,” McGraw said.The Irish will play their first game against either the Scarlet Knights or the Pirates at 6 p.m. Sunday. The semifinals are Monday and the finals are Tuesday.