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Renewed emphasis on defense plays key role in Irish victory

Matt Lozar | Thursday, March 3, 2005

It would have been natural to expect a blowout.Called for a midnight practice hours after the UCLA embarrassment and forced out of their locker room because of a “wiring” problem prior to Monday’s afternoon practice, the Irish should have been pretty ticked off heading into Wedn-esday night’s home game against a 2-12 Rutgers squad that hasn’t won a conference road game since January 2004. Then looking at just field goal percentage in the box score, with Notre Dame shooting 53 percent compared to Rutgers’ 30 percent, and a 68-58 victory seems disappointing, especially for a team marching to the NCAA tournament.But Mike Brey knew better.”I fully expected a battle,” he said.Going by Big East standards, maybe this one was a blowout.Brey pointed out in Notre Dame’s three other wins against the Big East’s cellar dwellers – Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova – the Irish survived by a combined three points.So Wednesday night’s 10-point victory could be classified as a pre-Spring Break cruise for this Irish team.The Irish won this game with what’s been emphasized during the two days of practice leading up to Wednesday’s game – defense. Jordan Cornette jumping out in the passing lanes, forcing passes closer to half-court than the 3-point line.Chris Quinn swatting passes out of bounds.Dennis Latimore and Torin Francis stepping out on pick-and-rolls to disrupt the Rutgers offense’s flow.All of that led to Rutgers shooting 29.5 percent from the field overall, an emphasis for the Irish in every game they play, but especially so Wednesday night.”That was a main goal, field goal defense,” Cornette said. “UCLA came in here and shot the lights out.”That’s the short-term positive from the win.Now for the long-term positive – getting to 9-6 in the conference.It doesn’t sound too impressive, but putting it in perspective definitely does.The win guarantees the Irish a winning record in conference play for the fifth straight year, something only Syracuse has done in the Big East during the same time period. That simple statement Brey can lean on to promote his program to the media, fans and recruits.For this season, a winning record in conference makes a major statement to the NCAA tournament committee, even if the Irish lose to Pittsburgh Saturday and get upset in the first round of next week’s Big East tournament. A 9-7 record in the deepest conference in America means the Irish are worthy of getting their name called on Selection Sunday.The Irish still control their postseason destiny. A win Saturday gets them to 10-6 in the Big East and all but guarantees them in the NCAA tournament. A win Saturday also gets them a bye in the Big East tournament, meaning they would have to win three games in New York to wrap up the league’s automatic bid. No Big East team has ever won four games in four days at Madison Square Garden.The Irish are leaving all of that prognostication, at least publicly, to the media. Chris Thomas didn’t bite on the question Wednesday night.”I’ll leave that to Digger,” Thomas said. “He’ll be the one to do that.”But don’t kid yourself that the Irish aren’t doing some projecting of their own.”That stays in the locker room,” Thomas said. “We know we’re an NCAA-caliber team and most of the time we show that, but there are times we don’t.”Just like Wednesday night.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Matt Lozar at mlozar@nd.edu