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MEN’S BASKETBALL: From downtown

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Without knowing at the time, Notre Dame was practicing early for West Virginia in its one-point win over St. John’s Saturday.

The Irish and Red Storm combined for 47 3-point attempts, but 34 of those attempts belonged to the never-gun-shy Notre Dame long-distance shooters. As the Irish travel to Morgantown for a 7 p.m. game with the Mountaineers tonight, coach Mike Brey knows his team already has a solid understanding of its opponent.

“It’ll be interesting preparation,” Brey said. “It’ll be like playing ourselves.”

West Virginia (11-3,1-2 Big East), which began its season with 10 straight wins, averages over 70 points and 25 three-point attempts per game. Notre Dame (11-3, 3-1) averages over 67 points and 21 three-point shots per game.

For Brey and the Notre Dame players, preparing for the Mountaineers will be like looking into a mirror.

“We’re a team that uses the 3-point line to our advantage, so we’ve got to ride the line,” Brey said. “We rode the line Monday [against Syracuse], [but] it didn’t work. We rode the line in every other game, in the other [conference] three wins. So it’s a big staple of our offense.”

The Irish head coach also remembers how St. John’s, who is not traditionally a long-distance shooting team, made key 3-pointers to keep Saturday’s game close.

Brey said the game plan for West Virginia, then, is simple.

“On Wednesday, I want to see lay-ups go in,” he said. “I want to hug that [3-point] line. We’ve got to hug that line against West Virginia, because it’ll be like playing us.”

Notre Dame will play man-to-man for the majority of the game – if not all of it – in order to force the West Virginia perimeter players towards the basket and away from their comfort zone.

“We keep a stat [that records] the number of 3-point attempts of total field goals,” Brey said. “We update that on a daily basis.”

Over 46 percent of West Virginia’s field goal attempts this season have been three-point shots, accounting for 360-of-780 total field goal attempts.

Though coach John Beilein’s squad has lost two of its first three Big East conference games in blowout fashion to Villanova (84-46) and Boston College (73-53), the Mountaineers pose a unique threat with their defensive strategy as well as their outside shooting.

The customary West Virginia 1-3-1 zone is geared to hassle opposing guards. However, it leaves room for penetration inside and opens passing lanes to the perimeter and under the basket. Similar in its strategy against the Syracuse 2-3 zone, Notre Dame will need its frontcourt to step up and control the foul line and low block, which the Irish didn’t do enough of against the Orange.

“My job is to relax both Torin [Francis] and Dennis [Latimore], because we need them, and it’s putting a lot of pressure on our perimeter,” Brey said after Saturday’s 67-66 win.

Neither big man stepped up against Syracuse, the team’s only conference loss. The game plan called for a strong inside presence to establish the inside offense and work the ball out.

But Francis and Latimore combine for an average of just 17.2 points and 13.5 rebounds per game, numbers that are not meaningless but that are also not sufficient to balance and improve Notre Dame’s offense.

This could be a factor in Latimore’s decreasing minutes in recent games. Brey said he does not feel uncomfortable playing other players and possibly reinserting Rick Cornett into the lineup. Cornett gave the Irish productive minutes in the early season, in particular as the anchor of a 2-3 zone that defeated Indiana on its home floor.

Notre Dame swept its two-game series with West Virginia last season, beating the Mountaineers 63-52 at the Joyce Center and squeaking by 65-64 on the road in Morgantown.

The Irish are 21-7 all-time against West Virginia but only 7-5 on the Mountaineers home floor.