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Men’s Basketball: Second-place stride

Eric Prister | Thursday, February 16, 2012

No. 23 Notre Dame returns to the road riding a seven-game win streak to face Villanova on Saturday.

The Irish (18-3, 10-3 Big East) have vaulted themselves into a tie for second place in the Big East and have the tiebreaker advantage over four of the five teams immediately behind them. Irish coach Mike Brey said his team’s double-digit conference win total is quite an accomplishment.

“Anytime we get to double-digit wins, that’s great consistency in this league,” he said. “That’s maybe one of the things I’m most proud of with the program, is that we get into double-digit league wins, because once we get into that, the other stuff kind of takes care of itself, with double-byes and Selection Sunday.”

Junior forward Jack Cooley, who leads the team in rebounding, is third in scoring and has recorded five double-doubles during the seven-game streak, has spurred the Irish charge. Cooley said he hopes opponent’s attention turns to him, because that will allow his teammates to take over.

“The more focus that’s on me is the less that’s on the rest of my teammates,” Cooley said. “Everyone forgets that [sophomore guards Jerian Grant] and [Eric Atkins], they’re knockdown shooters. The reason I’ve been scoring so much is probably that they’ve been focusing on them so much. So if they put the focus on me, that’s fine, those guys will go for 20 each. It’s going to work out well for our team.”

The two young guards have led the Irish with their ball-handling. Notre Dame ranks second in the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio, which Brey attributes to his backcourt.

“I think it’s fun playing with these guards,” he said. “These guys, as you’ve seen in the last month, they really have become one of the better backcourts in this league. And they believe it, and their teammates know to kind of play off of them and get out of their way.”

Villanova (11-14, 4-9) comes into the contest in a tie for 11th in the Big East and has struggled defensively. The Wildcats are ahead of only DePaul in scoring defense.

“Our team ball-handling is excellent,” Brey said. “That group has a lot of fun playing together. They all can pass, they know where each other is supposed to be. It’s certainly not any predictable movement ­— it’s a group kind of moving and reading the defense.”

Brey said despite the progress it has made, his team is still hungry for more.

“We’ve been very greedy winners, and that’s been good to see,” he said. “I think you see that more with a team that has more older guys. But this group, even though there’s still some youth, has that and that’s been very impressive to me.”

Notre Dame and Villanova tip off Saturday at 9 p.m. in Philadelphia.