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MEN’S BASKETBALL: Irish can inch close, but can only get so far

Pat Leonard | Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey held court at the postgame press conference after Tuesday night’s 85-82 loss to Georgetown for approximately 14 minutes.

It was a lengthy period of time for a coach to speak, particularly Brey. It was also unusual for a coach who had just lost in double-overtime, at home, with now a 1-5 conference record, to spend that much time talking about the heartbreaker.

So why dwell on the situation?

It appeared that – as the fifth-year coach’s voice shifted from monotone, to excited, to confused, to confident – Brey was merely searching for answers.

Though he knew before the season started that he needed to set lower expectations for this year’s squad – which is younger, less experienced and less talented than in years past – Brey certainly could not have anticipated the feeling of beginning the Big East schedule with only one win after six games.

In his first season as Notre Dame coach (2000-01), Brey won the first eight Big East games he coached. Prior to this year, the earliest a Notre Dame team under Brey had suffered its fifth conference loss of the season was on Feb. 4, 2004 two seasons ago against Boston College.

Granted, this season’s Irish have given themselves a chance in most of their games to win at the end. Four of the five losses have come by six points or fewer. And the team showed more heart and fight on Tuesday than even its coach had seen up to this point.

“I thought we played more passionately maybe then we played in a while,” Brey said. “We showed more emotion.”

But in college basketball conference play – and especially in Notre Dame’s situation – a double-overtime loss is still a loss. And the schedule doesn’t get any easier.

The Irish face No. 6 Villanova at the Joyce Center on Saturday, No. 13 West Virginia on the road Feb. 1 and Louisville at Freedom Hall that following Saturday. The 1-5 record easily could be 1-8 by Feb. 5, if not because Notre Dame is struggling then because the upcoming schedule would be daunting for any team in the country – not to mention one that still seems to be discovering its identity.

“You’ve got to stay positive. Look at the league,” Irish point guard Chris Quinn said following Tuesday’s loss. “If we’re negative, we’ll get blown out on Saturday.”

The question remains how much longer Notre Dame can remain positive after losing close games that not only take nightly tolls on the body, but deliver one more blow to the psyche of a wounded team.

Though the record doesn’t show it, Brey and the Irish have made individual and collective strides this season. Quinn is unveiling his leadership capabilities after spending three years virtually in Chris Thomas’ shadow. Center Torin Francis played inspired and tough on Tuesday. Russell Carter had perhaps his best game in a Notre Dame uniform against the Hoyas, and the younger players – Kyle McAlarney, in particular – are giving Brey more personnel options.

The problem is that even if this team eventually gels, overcomes its defensive deficiencies and becomes more consistent and versatile on the offensive end – as it has only in flashes so far – it will be too late. By the time Notre Dame has an opportunity to win a chunk of league games to boost its confidence, the clock will have run out.

“You never get used to losing,” Irish forward Rob Kurz said, slouched in the locker room following the defeat, “especially … losing a game like that.”

Give Brey all the time he needs after games for the remainder of the 2005-06 season.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Pat Leonard at pleonard@nd.edu