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February stretch make or break for the Irish

Andrew Soukup | Friday, February 6, 2004

Mike Brey is not a coach normally given to using superlatives.But ask the Irish basketball coach what he thinks of Notre Dame’s February schedule, and Brey offers a weak smile.”This is,” he said, “the toughest February ever in this program’s history.”Just how tough is the gauntlet the Irish must run? The month’s first seven games are all against teams whose RPI rating places them among the nation’s top 30.After losing 76-69 to Boston College, the first team in that stretch, Wednesday night, Notre Dame faces a difficult stretch when they host Pittsburgh and Connecticut in a 48-hour span beginning Saturday.Then, the Irish get the better part of a week off before hosting Seton Hall, but two days later, have to travel to Syracuse. Five days go by before the Irish have to play Connecticut – in Hartford, this time – and then host Providence. The murderous stretch concludes with a trip to Los Angeles to play UCLA.It’s enough to make any head coach whimper.And with the Irish (10-8, 4-3 in the Big East) teetering on the brink of failing to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, the Irish have to manage to get several quality wins during that span.”It’s another opportunity for us,” Torrian Jones said. “It’s going to do nothing but help us out. We’re ready for the challenge, and we’ve shown glimpses of our talent this year.”Notre Dame’s current predicament is eerily similar to the one the Irish faced in Brey’s first year and Jones’ freshman year. Then, the Irish had suffered through an unimpressive December and January and were poised on the proverbial NCAA Tournament bubble. But Notre Dame reeled off eight straight wins to clinch the Big East West Division title.The similarities are something Brey and Jones talk about privately, but rarely discuss with the rest of the team.”We’re a little younger this time around, and we have the talent,” Jones said. “But the older guys have to step up and get that eight-game winning streak.”Leadership is what we need most right now.”Brey isn’t so optimistic, but he knows Notre Dame needs many quality wins to improve their tournament resume. Notre Dame’s RPI rating is 82nd in the nation. Come Selection Sunday, teams who have an RPI rank around 40 are often considered bubble teams.What’s more, the Irish have yet to get a quality win this season. Notre Dame hasn’t beaten a ranked team this year, and its most impressive win, RPI-wise, came Jan. 10 at Villanova, who is ranked No. 62.All season long, Brey has defended the Irish against their tough schedule, saying that it wasn’t important for Notre Dame to beat every top-level team on its schedule as long as they beat a few. But those wins have been lacking.”This is a huge stretch for us,” Jordan Cornette said. “We’ve got some tough teams ahead on our schedule. We haven’t had any big wins yet. We’ve had some tough victories, but no good RPI wins.”But Notre Dame’s players haven’t given up. The Irish carry a two-game losing streak into Saturday’s game against No. 4 Pittsburgh (21-1, 7-1) and then turn around Monday and host the No. 5 Huskies (18-3, 6-1).”Nobody is thinking about the NIT,” Cornette said defiantly.He didn’t have to add that the Irish have enough on their minds