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Monaco: Team positioned just right for late season surge (Feb. 8)

By Mike Monaco | Friday, February 8, 2013

We all remember what happened when ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to town for what is now one of the most legendary football games of recent Irish gridiron lore.

The Irish, sitting at 5-0 at the time, got a signature win against a Stanford team that would be elite at the end of the year.

It was a win that typified the season.

It was a win that propelled the Irish.

It was a win that made the team – and fans – believe.

Well, “GameDay” is shipping out of Bristol to visit South Bend once again, this time for some basketball action.

And it comes at just the right time for Notre Dame.

The No. 25 Irish are positioned much like their football counterparts were heading into that mid-October weekend: a solid squad needing to prove itself against elite competition, in this case No. 11 Louisville.

Notre Dame had its chance to do so against No. 9 Syracuse on Monday night at the Carrier Dome, but the Irish shot 34.6 percent from the field en route to a 63-47 loss.

It seemed that maybe Notre Dame got its signature win against Kentucky way back on Nov. 29, when the Irish upset the then-No. 8 Wildcats 64-50 and the students stormed the court.

But the court didn’t deserve to be stormed. Not against an inferior and inexperienced opponent playing on the road at Purcell Pavilion. The court now sits empty, waiting for the “GameDay” gang to set up shop. The time for a signature win wasn’t a week after Thanksgiving. The time is now.

Notre Dame sits at 18-5 overall and 6-4 in the Big East. “Quality” wins on the NCAA tournament résumé likely read as follows: Cincinnati (maybe), Kentucky (maybe), Villanova (maybe) and BYU. I use the term “quality” lightly here because NIT teams might be able to beat those squads.

So the Irish undoubtedly need a marquee win against Louisville in a conference tilt, in a primetime matchup against an elite program that will still be elite at the season’s end.

Notre Dame has few chances remaining to get a statement victory that not only boosts its stock in the eyes of the tournament selection committee, but also sets the tone for the rest of the season. And think about the Stanford game for the football team. That team had one more true chance (Oklahoma) to make believers out of the BCS constituents.

The Irish hoopsters are running out of chances themselves. Sure, they get another crack at the Cardinals and the Bearcats, and they take on Marquette in early March, but those are three of the last four games of the regular season. The Irish need momentum now, not heading into the Big East tournament.

If this was an experienced squad, I’d be fine with Notre Dame getting hot in Madison Square Garden and riding that surge into March Madness. But the Irish aren’t the veteran squad we thought they were heading into the season.

This is a team trying to find itself, especially without graduate student guard Scott Martin. Junior guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant and senior forward Jack Cooley may be upperclassmen, but they are each just in their second seasons as starters. Sophomore guard/forward Pat Connaughton is still young and the only two reserves who saw time against the Orange on Monday, Cameron Biedscheid and Zach Auguste, are freshmen.

This team needs the requisite momentum and confidence now so they can build through the remainder of the regular season into the Big East tournament.

And momentum and confidence would surely follow a win against Louisville. Fresh off a trip to last year’s Final Four, the Cardinals began this season with high expectations and a No. 2 preseason ranking. After a hot 5-0 start, Louisville fell 76-71 to No. 4 Duke but responded by ripping off 11 consecutives victories. The Cardinals lost to Syracuse on Jan. 19, a loss that started a three-game losing skid in conference play. But since then they have won three and a row and are trying to creep back into the top 10 in the nation.

The top 10, a place where Stanford football eventually found itself at the end of the season despite its loss to the Irish. That win over the Cardinal catapulted the Irish from comfortably-ranked squad to title contender.

Notre Dame eventually played in the championship Jan. 7, the same night Notre Dame basketball got a 66-60 win on the road against Cincinnati.

Not just any win. A quality win.

Contact Mike Monaco at mmonaco@nd.edu

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