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Observer Exclusive: Digger Phelps comments on basketball season, conference realignment

Andrew Owens | Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Former Irish coach Digger Phelps discussed the state of the program, Notre Dame’s place in the Big East this season and where the Irish fit in among the ever-changing landscape of college athletics Tuesday in an exclusive interview with The Observer.

Phelps shares the record for wins over No. 1-ranked teams with seven during his 20-year tenure at Notre Dame, a career that included the school’s only Final Four appearance.

With only two starters returning in 2011-12, Notre Dame will need to rely on senior forward Tim Abromaitis this season, Phelps said.

“It’s going to be an interesting year because, as I said to Abromaitis the other day — I saw him at the end of practice and said, ‘Well, I think I’m going to go on the air and say that what Jimmer Fredette did last year for BYU, I can see Tim Abromaitis doing that for Notre Dame, getting 35, 40 [points] in big games, like when Pitt comes in here Dec. 27,'” said Phelps, who now works as an analyst on ESPN.

Phelps said much of Notre Dame’s success will depend on how well the frontcourt can make up for the loss of Carleton Scott, who declared for the NBA Draft with a year of eligibility remaining. Scott went undrafted, was recently released by a team in Spain and might play in Iceland.

“To me the mystery is why Carleton Scott left,” Phelps said. “If Carleton Scott came back, he could have averaged 20 [points] and 10 [rebounds] and been a late first-round draft pick or early second-round next year, but he made that choice to leave. We will miss him, because he would have been that presence that we needed. So we lost three quality players and it is going to be interesting to see in time how these guys mature.”

Phelps also said it is time for Notre Dame to drop its independence in football and join the ACC.

“I’d love to see us join the ACC,” he said. “We are east of the Mississippi when it comes to fundraising, alumni clubs, etc., and I include Chicago when I say that. And that’s not going to go away, and obviously we have west coast cities.

“But, I just don’t see how we will ever have the opportunity to compete for a BCS national championship without being in a conference. What’s the best conference for us? If I’m looking out right now, I’ve got to say the ACC right now for football and basketball.”

Phelps said the ACC could create a north division and a south division and rotate the basketball conference tournaments between Greensboro, N.C. and Madison Square Garden in New York. He added that key rivalries in football could be maintained, as well as the television contract in place since 1991.

“I would still say we should keep our NBC home contract,” he said. “We can negotiate that. Then play nine games [in the ACC] in football. I’d give them nine. Still play Navy because of tradition, Southern Cal, and rotate with Michigan and Michigan State every other year.

In order to compete nationally in recruiting, Phelps said the basketball program needs a new practice facility. He said he was a proponent of building a combined basketball and hockey arena where the Joyce Center parking lot is, tearing down the Joyce Center and building a practice facility there.

“You’d have what Kentucky has, and what a lot of these schools have now,” he said. “It’s all part of the package for men’s and women’s basketball. Kentucky’s [practice facility] cost I think $30 million, one side is men’s and the other side is women’s, but they got it done. It’s used against us in recruiting obviously.”

Phelps will travel to Bristol, Conn., on Monday to begin ESPN’s coverage of college basketball.

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu