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MEN’S BASKETBALL: Eagle hunting

Pat Leonard | Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Notre Dame has a 5-4 conference record, a desire to return to the NCAA tournament and only eight regular season games to prove that it deserves a postseason bid. So, at arguably the most crucial point in Notre Dame’s season, the Irish are hosting an undefeated, No. 5 nationally ranked team in the Joyce Center tonight.Notre Dame (13-6, 5-4), who sits on the bubble of most postseason predictions, including those of ESPN.com, hosts Big East foe No. 5 Boston College (20-0, 9-0) tonight at 7 p.m. While the past 20 teams have failed against the Golden Eagles, the Irish hope having history on their side can help them succeed.The last time Notre Dame hosted an undefeated team with 20-plus wins, the Irish beat No. 1 DePaul (25-0) in a 76-74 double-overtime victory on Feb. 27, 1980. Just three years prior, Notre Dame knocked off No. 1 San Francisco (29-0) in a 93-82 win.Now, the Irish are in the middle of a four-game stretch against four ranked opponents, beginning with a loss to Syracuse Saturday and ending with a matchup in Pittsburgh Feb 12.As Mike Brey coaches his 300th career game (151 at Delaware; 148 at Notre Dame), the Irish are looking to repeat history while simultaneously making a statement in the conference.Boston College is led by junior forward Craig Smith, who averages 18.9 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting 53.9 percent from the floor. The most pleasant surprise for the Eagles has been sophomore forward Jared Dudley, who is averaging 16.2 points and 7.2 rebounds.Notre Dame’s frontcourt did improve over the past three games, with Torin Francis (9.2 ppg) and Dennis Latimore (8.5 ppg) playing up to the physical level that Big East games demand. The three-point shooting of Colin Falls (43 percent) and Chris Quinn (41.5 percent) has driven the Irish offense most of the season, but the success of both the interior and outside games is reliant on the play of senior point guard Chris Thomas (13.7 points, 6.4 assists per game.) Boston College has defeated Georgetown, Connecticut and Villanova – a few common opponents to the Golden Eagles and Irish. Boston College’s 60-52 defeat of Seton Hall Saturday made it the first team in the history of the Big East to start a season with 20 straight wins.The Eagles have games against Syracuse, Villanova and Pittsburgh waiting on their remaining schedule.As of Feb. 2, ESPN.com classified Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh as “locks” to reach the NCAA tournament from the Big East. Notre Dame (60) has a lower RPI rating than Villanova, Georgetown and Connecticut, the three teams the Irish will most likely compete with for a spot in the Big Dance.The Irish are 2-2 against those three teams, with rematches against the Hoyas and Huskies remaining. And the way Notre Dame fares in big-time Big East games – beginning tonight with Boston College – may have a lot to do with how they fare on Selection Sunday.Notre Dame and Boston College will be televised tonight on ESPN2, the first of six games to be televised nationally of the eight remaining Irish games.Notesu Chris Thomas needs just five points to become the second player in Notre Dame history to score 1,000 points in Big East regular season play. Thomas would be the 25th player overall in the Big East to reach the 1,000-point mark, joining former Irish forward Pat Garrity (1,107 points) as the only other Notre Dame member.