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Men’s Basketball: Irish free to dream of bigger, better things

Bobby Griffin | Monday, March 6, 2006

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said it best in his press conference Saturday after the Irish beat DePaul and grabbed the final spot in the Big East tournament. He wants his team to dream.

How quickly things change. Notre Dame’s focus all season has been making the Big East tournament. It was the team’s prerogative before the season started, and it continued to be with every league game.

But now that the Irish have accomplished the goal they set out for, things are different.

Sure, No. 12-seed Notre Dame is concentrating on beating No. 5-seed Georgetown Wednesday. The Irish want to prove to any remaining doubters they belong in New York and are better than their 6-10 conference record. And the seniors don’t want the season to end.

But now that they have locked up a spot, the Irish are free to indulge their imaginations – and that means looking beyond Georgetown. If Notre Dame can somehow win four consecutive games, a feat the team has not accomplished all season in league play, the Irish will receive an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.

And there is a chance Notre Dame can get a spot even if it doesn’t win out. If the Irish win three games, they have nine conference victories. That should be enough to give them some deserved consideration.

In order to get those three wins, Notre Dame will have to beat Georgetown and Marquette. And if it does advance, Connecticut will likely be waiting (the No. 1-seed Huskies play the winner of No. 8 seed Cincinnati and No. 9-seed Syracuse).

That would give Notre Dame three wins against teams that rank No. 3 (Connecticut), No. 18 (Marquette) and No. 22 (Georgetown) according to the NCAA men’s basketball RPI (Ratings Percentage Index).

It’s a daunting challenge for Notre Dame. The Irish have struggled getting wins all season against the top teams in the league. Brey must know how difficult it will be to get to the NCAA Tournament. But that doesn’t mean his team can’t dream.

Plus, Notre Dame has dealt with worse. The Irish have had their backs against the wall all season, especially in the last week. But they emerged from it as one of the biggest success stories in the Big East (Notre Dame was 1-8 following a loss at Louisville and won five of its last seven to end the season).

And they know anything that happens in New York is icing on the cake. Notre Dame wasn’t expecting to get here, evident by Mike Brey’s post game interview Saturday when he said he would have been surprised to be in this position following the loss at Louisville.

Of course the coach had confidence in his team, but numbers are numbers. Eight losses in nine games to start the league schedule aren’t conducive to playing in a tournament where the bottom four teams do not qualify.

But Notre Dame bounced back. And because of that, the team has certain intangibles in its favor.

The Irish are more relaxed knowing that they are not currently on the bubble. The pressure will be on the shoulders of the higher seeds fighting for Tournament position.

And after Saturday’s win, the locker room attitudes reflected that laid back attitude. Irish guard Russell Carter said Colin Falls’ 3-pointer to give Notre Dame a five-point lead reminded him of Mario Elie (retired NBA guard who played with the Houston Rockets in the 1990s).

Notre Dame guard Chris Quinn was relieved, just happy to end his career at home with a win and be playing in New York.

This team has been through a lot this season. Nothing fazes the Irish anymore, which could be the team’s asset. And with an attitude where Notre Dame will hope for the best and dream of bigger things, the Irish could be in a very good position to turn some heads later this week.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Bobby Griffin at rgriffi3@nd.edu.