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Men’s Basketball Commentary: After blowout, next two games can shape remainder of season

Bob Griffin | Thursday, November 30, 2006

Forget the Big East. Notre Dame’s upcoming games against No. Maryland and Alabama are the two most important contests of the season.

A victory in either would provide the Irish with a quality non-conference win – something they have struggled with the last couple seasons – and in the process bolster the team’s RPI come February.

But looking at the bigger picture, it would set the course for the rest of the season.

Saying the Irish are going to beat two of the hottest teams in the country – both squads are undefeated and have looked impressive in the process – is a stretch, especially in back-to-back games.

But momentum’s a funny thing. Just ask Butler.

Suddenly, 16 days after what was then an embarrassing loss to a mid-major reminiscent of last season’s struggles, Notre Dame can now say it lost to a clear NCAA Tournament team.

Notre Dame has shown an ability to score the ball at will this season (85.8 points per game) and has a rebound margin better than every team in the Big East, including perennial inside powerhouses Connecticut and Pittsburgh.

Granted, it’s early, and the quality of opponent (save Butler) hasn’t been close to what the Irish will see in the next week and on their Big East schedule.

But Notre Dame is doing something so far that it hasn’t done in several years – it’s dismantling early season opponents. Instead of squeaking out wins over IPFW, Columbia and Wofford, the Irish are putting on offensive clinics in games they are expected to win – visible in Wednesday’s 90-45 win over Winston-Salem State.

There is work to be done defensively, but two days after Lehigh torched the Irish with 57 percent shooting (77 percent from 3-point range), Notre Dame held the Rams to 30 percent from the floor.

The Irish will need their best effort on both ends to beat either Maryland or Alabama. The guards are going to have to pressure the ball all night and the forwards will need to continue dominating the paint.

And coach Mike Brey is going to need a couple gutsy efforts from the bench. Brey has taken a lot of criticism lately, some of it deserved following his team’s inability to win games down the stretch last season, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

Instead of sticking to his guns, he’s completely retooled this year’s offense, emphasizing team chemistry and ball movement when his squad grew far too willing to let one player control the game for the last three seasons.

He’s done a solid job managing his bench – see Luke Zeller, who sat out for the entire second half of Monday’s win over Lehigh because the matchups favored Luke Harangody (far more bruising) and Zach Hillesland (far more athletic).

And, finally, for a coach who has been slammed by Irish fans for being unable to bring forwards along in his system – Rob Kurz looks very improved from last season and Harangody could be an NBA player in four years.

Beating Maryland or Alabama, or both for that matter, is going to be difficult. Both teams are on fire and each is more athletic than the Irish.

But a win in either would be a stepping-stone for the Big East season. It would give the team a swagger that only comes from knowing it’s capable of winning big games against tough opponents.

If Notre Dame loses both games, it’s still questioning its identity come January. It also continues to carry the painful memories from last season’s embarrassing record in close games.

But a win in one or both games and there’s a clean slate, fans are back in the Joyce Center and the Irish can safely expect special things for the remainder of the season.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Bob Griffin at rgriffi3@nd.edu