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Men’s Basketball: Irish try to stay positive despite frustrating losses

Bobby Griffin | Monday, January 30, 2006

Irish coach Mike Brey had a very peculiar look on his face during the opening tip of Saturday’s game against Villanova. Leaned forward with his eyebrows slightly raised, Brey was smiling.

But it couldn’t have been a confident grin, coming in with a two-game losing streak against the No. 6 team in the country. It was more likely one of anxiety. It’s at that point for the Irish, who dropped to 1-6 in the Big East Saturday. Not even their head coach seems to know what is going to happen once the game begins.

The 72-70 loss to Villanova should help Brey understand that Notre Dame’s games have played out according to the same unfortunate script all season. Play flat and fall behind, come back unexpectedly and lose a heartbreaker at the end.

Leaning back in his locker room seat after the losses, Irish guard Chris Quinn looks almost as confused answering questions as he does confident on the court. Brey sounds like a broken record making the same comments game after game.

This begs an important question. How can a team that has suffered so many tough losses continue to press on in a season that is slipping away faster than an Allen Ray drive to the basket?

Notre Dame talks about staying focused, continuing to put itself in situations where it can win games and “claw” its way to the Big East tournament.

But let’s look at it realistically. Notre Dame needed this one. Brey and the Irish players can say what they want about each game meaning the same thing, but a win over ‘Nova would have been big. It would have given Notre Dame a win over a top-10 opponent in the middle of a difficult conference stretch.

A victory over the Wildcats would have provided the necessary spark heading into Morgantown. If Notre Dame thought Villanova shot a lot of 3s, just wait until West Virginia opens its own clinic Wednesday. The Mountaineers have taken 519 3-point attempts this season, compared to 349 for their opponents.

It doesn’t get easier from there. The Irish play road games against Louisville, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Providence. They are home against Rutgers, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul.

A murderers’ row of NCAA powerhouses? Not necessarily. But aside from South Florida and DePaul, each team has a better league record than Notre Dame. And as the Irish have already learned this season, every team in the Big East is tough, anyway (DePaul defeated the Irish 73-67 on Jan. 7).

Notre Dame needs the confidence and respect that can only come with a big victory. Beating Villanova would have given Notre Dame a certain mental edge in its remaining games. It would have shown a team that truly believes in itself that they can win the close one.

And it could have saved Notre Dame’s season.

But instead, the Irish need to continue to figure out how to change the script – a script that if not yet written in pen, gets closer with each devastating loss.

Brey said Saturday his team needs to create its own luck. But in order for a team to create its own luck, it needs to shoot better than 67 percent from the free throw line. It needs to box out and eliminate second-chance points. It needs to quit making dumb fouls in key situations.

Maybe a little bit of improvement in these areas will begin to rectify the situation. Maybe instead of a 6-foot-1 guard getting a game-winning tip against the Irish, a Notre Dame player will have one of his own.

The Irish insist it isn’t over. And given the makeup of the Big East, they might be right. Six teams have two wins or fewer as of Sunday morning. Another four teams have three wins.

Notre Dame has a shot to make the statement in Morgantown it failed to make at home against Georgetown and Villanova. A victory would put the Irish right back in the mix and show everyone this is not a team destined for disappointment. But first Notre Dame needs to make it happen.

So don’t be surprised to see a similar look on Brey’s face when Notre Dame tips off against West Virginia. Sure, Brey said at the season’s outset that he anticipated difficulty in reaching the Big East tournament, never mind the NCAA tournament. But with that said, a certain sense of panic must be starting to creep into Brey’s mind.

One that not even a slight smile can conceal.