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Farmer: Unexpected rise could be prelude (Mar. 10)

Douglas Farmer | Thursday, March 10, 2011

Three years ago, Ben Hansbrough was toiling away unhappily at Mississippi State.

Less than five months ago, Big East coaches not only left the Irish senior guard off the Preseason All-Big East First Team, they did not even grant him honorable mention status.

Tuesday, those same coaches named Hansbrough the Big East Player of the Year, after unanimously naming him to the All-Big East First Team on Sunday.

Three years ago Notre Dame finished 10th in the Big East, and ended the season with a loss to Penn State in the NIT semifinals.

Less than five months ago, the Irish finished seventh in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll, five spots behind Villanova.

Now, the Irish enter postseason play after finishing second in the Big East and No. 4 in the nation’s final polls.

Unexpected rises seem to be the theme to Notre Dame’s season: to the extent that Villanova would have needed to win two games in order to face the Irish in the Big East quarterfinals tonight. Alas, the Wildcats couldn’t even beat South Florida Tuesday, further skewing the preseason prognostications.

Only two questions remain: How high can the Irish rise? And will Hansbrough and Notre Dame end up flying too close to the sun?

The Irish last tasted a top-five ranking in January 2003 after opening the season with 12 wins in their first 13 games. This season, an identical start only carried Notre Dame to the No. 15 slot in the polls.

A late-season, three-game swoon dropped the 2003 Irish into a No. 5 seed for the NCAA tournament. Mike Brey’s current squad only lost consecutive games once, and thus, could face a No. 16 seed in the NCAA’s opening round.

The most unexpected aspect of this rise is that Notre Dame deserves a No. 1 seed.

But can these Irish handle such accolades, or will no longer being the underdog and instead being the focus of conversation backfire and Ben, Brey and the boys?

No matter how much fans — and columnists — speculate, no one can know for sure how Notre Dame will handle the heat, but certain indicators should fill Irish fans with confidence as St. Patrick’s Day approaches.

For the first time in recent memory, Notre Dame did not suffer an embarrassing loss this season. Granted, all five of its losses came by margins which could qualify as eyesores — at an average of 16 points per loss — but each of those losses also came on the road, against NCAA tournament-bound teams. Thus, it is realistic to presume the Irish will avoid an embarrassing upset against an opponent akin to Old Dominion or Winthrop, as they have in the past.

Another change from years past is that Notre Dame has proven it can win games when its 3-point shooting does not show up on a given night. In back-to-back games at the Old Spice Classic in November, the Irish shot a combined 5-of-34 from deep, yet still prevailed over Cal 57-44 and Wisconsin 58-51. At some point in the coming tournaments, fourth-year forward Tim Abromaitis’ shot will not be falling. This is a Notre Dame squad that can survive such a drought.

The Irish also know how to slow down their fast-paced offense. Though Notre Dame put up 93 points to topple then-No. 19 Villanova on Feb. 28, it also held itself to 56 points in a 56-51 victory over then-No. 2 Pittsburgh on Jan. 24.

The security blanket known as Brey’s ‘burn’ offense allows Notre Dame to enjoy whatever tempo its opponent brings to the court. Whether facing a high-flying Kansas or a plodding Purdue, the Irish will have options.

But the most encouraging difference between this version of Notre Dame and the ones previously seen did not reveal itself until the final regulation game — a 70-67 victory over then-No. 16 Connecticut. When Hansbrough fouled out with more than eight minutes left, it seemed that sans their catalyst, the Irish would fold. Instead, Notre Dame rose without its leader.

Already this season, the Irish defeated two top-20 teams while senior forward Carleton Scott rode the bench nursing a sore hamstring, and Notre Dame rallied to the upset at Pittsburgh without Abromaitis attempting a single field goal.

The Irish can truly win no matter who does not show up on any given day. Combine that with consistent performances no matter the opponent, an independence from the 3 and a varied offense, and perhaps this is finally the year for a deep Notre Dame run.

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