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Irish schedule is high risk, high reward

Chris Hine | Monday, November 24, 2008

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey joked during his media day press conference that he didn’t know what he was thinking when he booked such a tough non-conference schedule for the Irish this season. If you haven’t heard by now, Notre Dame will be playing every ranked team in the country and will have to shoot on theme park-style, oval-shaped rims that don’t allow you to make any shots. OK, so that last part may not be true, but that first part is actually not as far away from the truth as you might think. When potential matchups in this week’s Maui Invitational are factored in, No. 8/9 Notre Dame might play as many as nine teams currently ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll, including six top-10 teams and two of those teams twice (No. 2 Connecticut and No. 3 Louisville).So while the Irish come in with high expectations this season, fans hoping for a duplicate or an improvement over last year’s 25-8 record and 14-4 record in the Big East shouldn’t get overly excited. It might not happen, even though the Irish are built to compete this year. Brey’s right, the schedule is brutal.”I said 11-7 and 12-6 in this league I hope means a hell of an NCAA Tournament seed because of what you played against. I think the league champion can have 12 wins,” Brey said. “I swear to God, it’s just too hard a league.”But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It can actually set Notre Dame up for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, regardless of their seed. Let me explain.My father coached high school basketball at the same school, the now defunct Bishop Hoban High School, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., for over 30 years. For a few years in the mid- to late- 1990s, his teams were classified AA, but the conference schedule was set up so that his teams played AAA, or even AAAA teams – bigger schools that usually had more talent – on a nightly basis. Needless to say, their schedule was brutal, and for a few years, his teams finished at .500 or barely above in the regular season. But then the playoffs would roll around, when Hoban was playing AA competition again, schools more on their level, his teams would be ready. Routinely, they would enter as a low seed in the district playoffs, but run through the top teams in the district to get into the state playoffs. One year, they entered as the No. 8 seed, the last team to make the playoffs, and ended the season of No. 1 Scranton Prep in the first round of the district playoffs – Scranton Prep was ranked No. 1 in the state that year in AA. Hoban wouldn’t just stop at districts. They made runs deep into the state playoffs, and while they never won the state title, they were able to regularly get to the quarterfinals and even made a state semifinals appearance before the league was finally realigned. Looking back, my dad said the schedule, while tough at the time, benefited his teams when it really mattered. So all bragging for my father’s coaching abilities aside, the Irish are in a similar situation this season. Their schedule is tough and they will have their share of bumps and bruises along the way, maybe even some this week in Maui. But come Tournament time, even if Notre Dame is doesn’t get a top four seed, as some are predicting, they should still be in good shape to make it into the second weekend of the Tournament. After that, the Irish will be playing those top-tier teams again and all bets are off, just like all bets were off for dad’s teams when they made it into the state playoffs. Only the Tournament will be the time when Notre Dame shows whether or not it can win a national title. Any conclusion that is reached before then would be premature. Notre Dame might learn and improve more from a couple of tough regular season losses than from wins.So hang on for a bumpy ride this season, but don’t get off before reaching the final destination.

The views in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.Contact Chris Hine at chine@nd.edu