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Men’s Basketball: Hoops squad looks to get back on track vs. Cincinnati

Chris Hine | Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ever since Notre Dame’s loss to Louisville on Jan. 12, the Irish have been trying to turn the page, and start a new chapter, a new winning streak. Too bad the pages have been glued together.

Five straight games against ranked opponents, four against teams now in the top-10, offered no respite, no easy wins, and in fact, no wins at all.

“You know, I think after each loss, we’ve been trying to turn the page and get onto something different,” Irish guard Kyle McAlarney said. “But I think now, you’ve just got to forget about all that and you’ve got to just go out and play.”

Notre Dame’s matchup Wednesday at Cincinnati represents Notre Dame’s best chance at a win since the Irish downed Seton Hall on Jan. 10, a win Irish coach Mike Brey said seemed like it was “last season.” But Brey said just because Cincinnati may not have the number next to its name doesn’t mean you can automatically put one in the win column for Notre Dame.

“You can’t fall into the trap where just because Cincinnati’s not in the top-10, you’re not ready to compete,” Brey said before practice Monday.

The Bearcats posted a 65-57 win over Georgetown last week, but Villanova blew them out Sunday, 71-50. For the Irish to beat the Bearcats, they’ll need to play well in every facet of the game for 40 minutes, something they haven’t done in their current slump.

“We’ve done stuff in spurts and then just kind of, one important play, important rebound we just haven’t been able to get, which was evident in the Marquette and UConn game,” McAlarney said.

A loss to Cincinnati would not mean the end of Notre Dame’s season, but it would make the road the NCAA Tournament a lot tougher. Brey and Notre Dame’s seniors were in a similar situation three years ago, when Notre Dame couldn’t buy a win, and suffered heartbreaking loss after heartbreaking loss, failing to make the NCAA Tournament.

Each defeat wore on the team’s chemistry and psyche, something that hasn’t, or won’t happen with this year’s squad, according to senior Zach Hillesland.

“I think it’s a good point of comparison to see the psyche of this team compared to the psyche of that team because that team was falling apart a bit at certain places,” Hillesland said. “I think, looking at our guys, everyone seems like they’re still on board and everyone’s ready to go. So, this group is ready, they’re mentally tough and we’re going to go out and keep fighting.”

And why is this team able to avoid this internal disruption that happens when teams fall short of expectations?

“I think as a group we’re closer and have a better line of communication between everyone on the team between the players and the coaches,” Hillesland said. “Everyone’s on the same page. We know what has happened, we’re going to be honest and up-front with it.

“We know what we need to do and there really isn’t any bickering or behind-the-back finger-pointing.”

Part of that honesty is recognizing that Notre Dame isn’t going anywhere unless its post defense and rebounding improve. Against Pittsburgh Saturday, the Panthers made fools out of the Irish on the glass, outrebounding Notre Dame 49-30, with 22 of those coming as offensive boards. DeJuan Blair had 22 by himself. So far in Big East play, Notre Dame ranks 14th in rebounding defense. This has been a point of emphasis as Notre Dame prepares for Cincinnati.

“They pose some problems with an athletic front line that we’ve had problems with keeping people off the backboard,” Brey said.

Cincinnati is led by guard Deonta Vaughn, who averages 15.3 points per game. But if the Irish can contain Vaughn, it won’t mean much if they can’t rebound. If they can, Notre Dame may finally turn the page on a brutal first half Big East play.

“I think we’re ready to do it,” McAlarney said. “No one likes to lose, and five in a row puts you at the point of God-knows-what. I think we’re ready to do it. I think practices have gone very well, very good lately, and it’s just a matter of us translating that over to the game.”