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Recent success sets high expectations for Irish

Andrew Soukup | Friday, November 21, 2003

When Irish coach Mike Brey first arrived at Notre Dame three years ago, he pulled his players into a meeting room and told them he thought he could help them reach the NCAA Tournament – a feat the Irish hadn’t accomplished in 11 years.Now, Brey looks back on those days and laughs at how the expectations have changed.Gone is the satisfaction with merely qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. Gone, too, is contentment with winning a tournament team before folding up against a more established power.Even if the Irish, who host Northern Illinois in their season opener Monday, duplicate their Sweet 16 appearance of last year this March, the feat might just warrant a shrug of the shoulders in the Joyce Center basketball offices.”Last year, we went to the Sweet 16. I think we should think nothing short of the Final Four [this year],” junior co-captain Jordan Cornette said. “We’re thinking big dreams, and we want to go as far as possible.”Each year, Notre Dame has steadily improved its postseason success. In Brey’s first year, the Irish made the NCAA Tournament and won the opening round game. In his second year, the Irish pushed top-seeded Duke to the brink before falling in the second round. Last year, Notre Dame made the Sweet 16 before Arizona blew an awe-struck Irish team out.With each year, Notre Dame gains more experience, and its players appear less likely to pause in wonderment when they pass an old milepost.”What excites me is to hear our veterans talk about bigger things, playing deeper [in March],” Brey said. “That’s not pipe dreams anymore. Those guys can really talk about this with the experience that they’ve had.”The centerpiece of Notre Dame’s team is point guard Chris Thomas, who turned down the NBA for another year in college. His backcourt mate, sophomore Chris Quinn, could, at best, help give the Irish one of the nation’s top backcourts at best and, at worst, a tandem that could wreak havoc on opposing defenses.”It’s hard for teams to guard two point guards, especially Chris,” Thomas said. “He can shoot, he can pass, he can handle the ball just as good as any point guard in the country.”Notre Dame has typically beaten teams before by shooting them to death. Defense, on the other hand, is another question mark. And after Notre Dame’s overtime win in a Nov. 14 exhibition, Brey seemed almost resigned toward the fact that the Irish would have to outscore teams to win.But Brey knows the Irish will need defense to face their tough schedule. It’s no surprise that the Irish, who finished third in the Big East West Division last year, will face another tough conference slate this year. The league re-aligned to form one massive 14-team division, and the Irish will play every team at least once. The three teams it plays twice are defending champion Syracuse, preseason No. 1 Connecticut and perennial power Pittsburgh.There are other question marks too, like Notre Dame’s relative lack of depth, that won’t be answered until the season starts Monday. And the Irish won’t find out who will replace graduates Matt Carroll and Dan Miller’s remarkable point production until they tip off against Northern Illinois.But Brey and the Irish truly believe they will continue their improvement as a program. The Irish believe they are one of the nation’s elite programs, and this season, they’ll look to demonstrate it.”I’m really excited about who we have back,” Brey said. “When we think about this team all summer and watching them in … practices, the six returning guys, that if we had to toss it up tonight in a Big East game, I would feel pretty good about it.”