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Farmer: Annual questions return for Irish (Jan. 1)

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, January 20, 2011

It’s that time of year again. Mid-January: The days of syllabus week, laughable amounts of snow and the annual questioning of Notre Dame basketball.

What classes will be the easiest this semester?

Will the Irish ever win a game on the road?

When will the walk to South Dining Hall no longer result in frostbite?

Does Notre Dame have an offense aside from a 3-point barrage?

Are there more than seven players on the Irish roster?

Can Mike Brey right the ship before an excess amount of damage is done to his team’s resume?

If only these questions hadn’t all been heard before. Just like cupcake classes and South Bend snowfalls, doubting Notre Dame has become an annual trend, seemingly with decades of tradition supporting it.

The only chance to buck this habit lies in the very hands of the doubted, and perhaps this is finally the year Brey, Ben Hansbrough, Tim Abromaitis and the rest of the Irish make a statement.

Losing on the road in the Big East, or against Kentucky in Kentucky, is far from preferable, but there are darker black marks to have against you. Syracuse (with only one loss), Marquette and St. John’s are all likely NCAA tournament teams. They should be expected to defend their respective home courts. Notre Dame briefly ascended to the top-10 by doing just that, beating likely March Madness participants in Gonzaga, Georgetown, Connecticut, Cincinnati and St. John’s. At some point the Irish will find their stride on the road. It is nearly inevitable, especially with a trip to DePaul coming up on Feb. 3.

As for the Irishman’s phobia of an offense that so often goes three points at a time, take a deep breath for a should-be-common-sense factoid. Teams that shoot 3s and make them are more likely to win; teams that shoot 3s and miss them are less likely to win. It is not that Notre Dame lives and dies by the 3pointer, but rather a poor shooting percentage on any given night is a tough hurdle to overcome in general. Any team can go cold. Irish fans simply need to hope that fate does not befall Notre Dame in crunch time, say, in March, as it didn’t in 2003, when Brey’s squad rode 13 three-pointers, on only 24 attempts, to a Sweet 16 berth, the first in school history since 1987.

As for that lack of depth troubling the Irish, a Wednesday surprise may have changed Notre Dame’s fortunes heading into this crucial weekend against Marquette and at Pittsburgh. Senior forward Carleton Scott injured his hamstring during Notre Dame’s 70-58 loss at Syracuse on Jan. 1. The Irish have sorely missed their jack-of-all-trades throughout Scott’s absence over the last three weeks, but in the victory over No. 25 Cincinnati on Wednesday, he played 15 minutes, hitting both of his field goal attempts — both 3-pointers — for six points.

His return lengthens the portion of the bench Brey is comfortable with by a significant amount, considering without Scott, Brey only used two players off his bench consistently — sophomore guard Joey Brooks and sophomore forward Jack Cooley. Once Scott returns to full health, the Irish starting five should no longer absolutely need to play more than 30 minutes apiece.

Scott’s return, along with an eventual — albeit still hopeful — traveling breakthrough will answer some of those annual questions. Notre Dame faced a tough non-conference slate, including wins over Georgia, California and Wisconsin in the span of four days at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando over Thanksgiving weekend, and with 15 wins to date, nobody should be truly concerned about Notre Dame’s Big Dance chances.

At that point, the Irish can legitimately, finally silence their critics — including myself — with a strong run, completely contrary to last season’s disappointing finale.

This squad, in Brey’s 11th season, could be the one to accomplish just that. But until they do, those questions will continue to linger, just like syllabus week remains a joke in most students’ eyes and Texas natives — such as Scott — will still find Midwestern winters a nuisance.

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

Contact Douglas Farmer at dfarmer1@nd.edu