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Men’s Basketball Analysis: Irish preserve NCAA hopes

Greg Arbogast | Monday, February 16, 2009

Hope is a wonderful thing.

For Notre Dame and its fans, hope means being able to make statements like the following: If we can just manage to win four out of our last six games, we’ll have a shot at a bye in the Big East Tournament and a slot in the NCAA Tournament.

Four wins would put the Irish at 18-12 overall and 9-9 in Big East play. That would put them on the bubble for both a top-eight Big East seed and an NCAA Tournament spot, meaning that how the Irish performed in the Big East tournament would likely determine their NCAA fate. That type of opportunity is really all Notre Dame can ask for after losing seven games in a row.

Getting to that magical .500 record in the Big East won’t be easy. Notre Dame can be realistically favored in only two of their next six games – home contests against Big East bottom-feeders St. John’s and Rutgers.

Assuming the Irish don’t pull out a miracle victory at Connecticut, that means Notre Dame’s NCAA Tournament hopes likely rest on three games: at West Virginia, at Providence and home against Villanova.

Win zero or one out of three and the Irish are looking at an NIT bid. Win two out of three and Mike Brey’s men can play themselves into the Big Dance with a strong Big East showing. Win all three games and Notre Dame becomes one of the teams nobody wants to play come March.

That’s Notre Dame’s situation. Here’s a look at how the rest of the Big East currently stacks up.

A cut above: No. 1 Connecticut (24-2, 12-2), No. 4 Pittsburgh (24-2,

11-2)

These two teams are not only the class of the Big East but among an elite group of teams with legitimate national title hopes. They’re not battling for top-four Big East seeds as much as they’re battling for No. 1 seeds come Selection Sunday.

Top-four contenders: No. 7 Louisville (19-5, 10-2), No. 10 Marquette (21-4, 10-2), No. 12 Villanova (20-5,

8-4)

With the Big East Tournament switching to a 16-team format this year, a top-four seed assumes added importance, guaranteeing not one but two byes. Of these three teams, only two will likely secure that extended rest over spring break.

Although it may seem like Louisville and Marquette have the spots locked up, take a look at the Golden Eagles’ remaining schedule: Seton Hall, at Georgetown, Connecticut, at Louisville, at Pittsburgh, Syracuse. With Villanova playing a much cushier final stretch, Marquette will have to earn its top-four seed.

Notre Dame and its competition: Providence (16-9,

8-5), No. 24 Syracuse

(19-7, 7-6), Cincinnati

(17-9, 7-6), West Virginia

(17-8, 6-6), Notre Dame

(14-10, 5-7)

If the Irish are to reach that .500 Big East mark, these are the teams they hope to pass on their way to a top-eight seed. Although it currently holds the best record of the group, Providence may be the most vulnerable to an Irish comeback. The Friars have just one game remaining they should be favored in – at Rutgers – and a loss to the Irish would give Notre Dame the tiebreaker if the teams ended up with matching conference marks.

Notre Dame also partially controls its destiny with West Virginia, but the Irish would have to win in Morgantown this Wednesday. Only Pittsburgh and Connecticut have managed to do that thus far this year, and Villanova saw its six-game winning streak come to a grinding halt last Friday when the Wildcats lost by 21 points at West Virginia.

Playing out the string: Seton Hall (14-10, 5-7), Georgetown (13-10, 4-8), USF (8-16, 3-9), St. John’s (12-13, 3-10), Rutgers (10-15, 1-11), DePaul

(8-18, 0-13)

These teams are equivalent to a pre-pubescent middle school kid playing eighth-grade ball. They’re at a competitive disadvantage, and the hits just keep on coming. Take DePaul for example. The Blue Demons have a winless conference record, and they get to try and end that streak against teams like Pittsburgh, Villanova and West Virginia. On the plus side, they get to try and avoid the goose egg in Big East play when they take on St. John’s on Feb. 28.