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Men’s Basketball Analysis: Time to play like the sharks

Fran Tolan | Wednesday, January 28, 2009

It might seem like Notre Dame is sinking, but don’t abandon the ship yet. Yes, the Irish have suffered four straight losses. And yes, after wasting a two-game homestand, they head to No. 3 Pittsburgh Saturday.

But no, this isn’t the USS Indianapolis we’re talking about here – that ship sank and left its crew to shark-infested waters.

In other words, the Irish don’t belong with the bottom feeders in the Big East, but they could be getting dangerously close that level. The Irish are in 11th place and right now, their NCAA Tournament hopes in jeopardy if they can’t right the ship soon.

“We don’t want to start thinking about that yet,” Irish guard Kyle McAlarney said after Monday’s loss to Marquette. “But it’s hard not to when you look at the standings and our record.”

If they fall to the Panthers, the No. 22 Irish do have a shot to secure a decent seed for the Big East tournament. After Saturday, Notre Dame will play just two games – rematches at No. 2 Connecticut and home against No. 7 Louisville – against the upper echelon of the conference.

But it still won’t be easy the rest of the way. Aside from their remaining conference slate, the Irish have to travel to take on UCLA. In Big East action, they have to play home games against Louisville and Villanova, and at Cincinnati, West Virginia, Providence and Connecticut. At least five of those are very winnable games for the Irish. Throw in home contests against league cellar-dwellers South Florida, Rutgers and St. John’s, and the Irish don’t seem like they have that much in common with Quint from the movie “Jaws” anymore. (If you haven’t seen “Jaws,” I’m not explaining it to you. Just see the movie.)

If the Irish lose to Pittsburgh and could manage to win just three of six from their other solid league opponents, they’d just have to take care of the trio of easy home games to finish with a .500 Big East record. The Irish would then have 18 wins, which, along with a win in the conference tourney, might be good enough for an NCAA Tournament bid. A win at UCLA could help a lot as well.

In the beginning of the season, that hypothetical would have seemed like a worst-case scenario for the Irish. And it still is. The point here, though, is that Notre Dame is far from done. A 10-8 league record right now is a realistic goal for this team. Pittsburgh finished 10-8 last year, good enough for seventh place, and won the Big East tournament. A 9-9 record would likely put the Irish in a more precarious position, but still with a shot at the NCAA Tournament.

And who’s to say the Irish can’t sweep home games against Louisville and Villanova or that they can’t catch Pittsburgh, Connecticut or UCLA on a bad day? Notre Dame played two of its worst games of the season offensively on Saturday and Monday and still was in it at the end of each contest against a top-tier opponent.

Beginning Saturday, the Irish must start winning the games they should and pick up a couple of underdog victories. It can’t have a meltdown like it had against St. John’s and it has to be able to pull out a couple of close wins against quality conference opponents. It’s time for the Irish to again become more like sharks, rather than the helpless crew.

Here’s a look at where the top teams in the conference stand:

1. No. 10 Marquette (18-2 overall, 7-0 Big East)

Fresh off their win at Notre Dame, the Golden Eagles are poised to make a play for the Big East regular season championship. Marquette probably has the best backcourt in the country and is on a roll after winning its last 10 games.

2. No. 7 Louisville (15-3, 6-0)

The Cardinals have really turned it on since conference play started. They took down No. 1 Pittsburgh and blew Notre Dame off the court in an overtime win. The Cardinals still have one more date with the Irish, possibly an upset opportunity for host Notre Dame.

3. No. 2 Connecticut (18-1, 7-1)

The Huskies have just one loss but unfortunately for them, it came against Georgetown, a conference foe. Most likely – make that, certainly – nobody will run the table. If Connecticut keeps playing like it did against the Irish Saturday, they could double as Big East regular season and conference champs.

4. No. 3 Pittsburgh (18-1, 6-1)

The Panthers, who were ranked No. 1 in the country just over a week ago, now sit at fourth place in the conference. Such is the nature of the Big East. But Pittsburgh has an opportunity to make some noise this week as the team will take on No. 21 Villanova today before getting set to welcome the Irish on Saturday.

Also in the hunt: Providence (13-6, 5-2), No. 15 Syracuse (17-4, 5-3)

Still alive: Villanova (15-4, 3-3), West Virginia (14-5, 3-3),?Georgetown (12-6, 3-4), Cincinnati (13-7, 3-4), Notre?Dame (12-7, 3-5)

Out of contention: St.?John’s (11-8, 2-5), South Florida?(7-12, 2-5), Seton Hall (10-9, 1-6), Rutgers (9-11, 0-7), DePaul (8-12, 0-7)

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

Contact?Fran?Tolan at ftolan@nd.edu.