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Men’s Basketball: It’s no easy walk down the Hall

Pat Leonard | Friday, February 17, 2006

No. 1 Connecticut waits on the horizon. The Huskies (22-2, 9-2 Big East) are virtually unbeatable at home, and Notre Dame (12-10, 3-8) needs every win it can get to qualify for postseason eligibility.

If only the Irish had the luxury of preparing for the Huskies this early. A date with Seton Hall (16-7, 7-4) stands in the way. And the Pirates host the Irish at 7:30 p.m. Saturday coming off a momentous win at Continental Airlines Arena.

Seton Hall downed No. 11 West Virginia Tuesday, 71-64, just three days after what can only be described as an embarrassing 99-57 home loss to Connecticut.

The Irish begin the two-game road trip and catch the Pirates at the end of a three-game home stand of their own.

“[Seton Hall is] resilient as heck, obviously,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said following Wednesday’s 62-55 win over South Florida. “They get smoked by Connecticut, [and] they come right back and beat West Virginia. And West Virginia couldn’t get a shot off. I mean you saw it – they just smother you.”

Seton Hall, under fifth-year coach Louis Orr, actually averages fewer points scored (71.3) than points allowed (72.9) in Big East play. The Pirates also lost three of their first four conference games – just like Notre Dame.

But Seton Hall rattled off five straight wins up to its loss to Connecticut. The Pirates are No. 6 in the Big East, and their frontcourt has been dominant recently.

Forwards Grant Billmeier, Brian Lang and Kelly Whitney combined to score 50 points on 18-of-25 shooting against the Mountaineers. That performance has Brey comparing this Seton Hall team to a familiar opponent from the past.

“I’m going to compare them to the old Pittsburgh teams,” Brey said. “[It’s like former Panthers forwards Chevon] Troutman and [Chris] Taft – Billmeier and Whitney, banging on you, beating on you … they’re tough kids.”

Irish co-captain and point guard Chris Quinn said after Wednesday’s win that the team has discussed defensive intensity as a key area of improvement to earn the necessary possible victories.

“On the defensive end, we want to build on [what we did against Rutgers],” Quinn said, referring to a 90-63 win over the Scarlet Knights Feb. 8. “[We need] awareness of different players the other team has. Rutgers had Quincy Douby. South Florida had Holmes and Buckley.”

Whitney is the player to stop Saturday, though the Pirates have several scoring options. The 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward/center scored 21 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the West Virginia win.

Brey will use Irish forwards Torin Francis, Rick Cornett and Rob Kurz to combat the physical Pirates frontcourt, though Notre Dame knows it is just as important to improve on offense from the 12-turnover, 11-assist performance against South Florida.

“It comes out of moving the ball better,” Quinn said of taking care of the ball. “It seems like our offense is a little stagnant at times, and we’ve got to do a better job of getting guys the ball in the right spots.”

And the coach said focus must remain on the dangerous Seton Hall squad, though an even more imposing opponent looms.

“We know what’s coming Tuesday,” Brey said, “but we’ve got to deal with Saturday night. We’ve played well on the road, though. We’ve gone for it [and] given ourselves chances. I have every reason to believe it’ll be game situations in Continental Airlines arena on Saturday.”