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MEN’S BASKETBALL: Bouncing back

Pat Leonard | Friday, January 27, 2006

Notre Dame is running out of potential turning points during a difficult 2005-06 season. But Saturday is one of them.

The Irish (10-7, 1-5 Big East) are almost halfway through their conference schedule with just one win over Providence (9-8, 2-4) to show for it. And on Saturday, Notre Dame hosts No. 6 Villanova at 6 p.m. (ESPN2) in the Joyce Center with an opportunity to improve its record and its level of confidence.

“Our guys know it would count probably more than one [win] psychologically if we got it,” Irish coach Mike Brey said before Thursday’s practice. “It would count more than one in a lot of ways right now, any of these in this [upcoming] stretch.”

At the most critical juncture of its Big East schedule, Notre Dame meets Villanova Saturday and then travels to No. 9/13 West Virginia and No. 22/23 Louisville for consecutive road games on Feb. 1 and Feb. 4, respectively.

Villanova is talking NCAA tournament, while Brey referred to the Big Dance in March as “that other one” on Thursday, indicating his focus is on making the conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.

Nevertheless, the Irish think beating the Wildcats could jumpstart a squad that has been close but not capitalized on game situations.

“Every game’s huge for us,” said Irish point guard Chris Quinn, who played all 50 minutes in a double-overtime loss to Georgetown Tuesday night. “But with a top-10 team coming in here, this one carries a lot of weight.”

Villanova’s top four scorers are all guards. Randy Foye leads the Wildcats averaging 20.7 points per game, followed by Allan Ray (18.3), Mike Nardi (11.6) and Kyle Lowry (11.1). Ray missed the team’s last game with a strained hamstring injury he suffered in practice. The Wildcats won, though, by a 49-46 margin Tuesday over South Florida, which is winless in its first Big East season.

The narrow victory raised eyebrows. Villanova’s only two losses are to West Virginia and No. 4/5 Texas by a combined seven points, and the Wildcats’ shooting – which their fifth-year coach Jay Wright relies on – has been inconsistent thus far (45 percent from the field, 39.6 from 3-point range).

But Brey expects Ray back for Saturday’s game and he is concerned about the Wildcats’ speed and pressure defense. He said Notre Dame must take care of the ball and play its own game, “play loose,” instead of making drastic adjustments.

“That’s why [Villanova’s] been as successful as they are,” Quinn said. “They line up and make teams do things they don’t normally do.”

As Irish center Torin Francis said Thursday, Notre Dame may be able to take advantage of the Wildcats’ guard-heavy structure in the low post for points and free throw opportunities. But so far, Brey’s style has been to put the ball in Quinn’s hands and trust the senior point guard with a young, inexperienced team.

Quinn averages 23.3 points per game in Big East games, second only to Rutgers junior Quincy Douby (23.5). He has played in 257 of a possible 260 minutes in the Irish’s first six conference games, taking and making shots and creating end-game plays down the stretch (see Georgetown).

Brey said that similar to past Notre Dame leaders Troy Murphy, Ryan Humphrey, Matt Carroll and Chris Thomas, Quinn has the tangible and intangible qualities that make a coach leave him on the floor.

“I’m always thinking how to steal him a rest,” Brey said. “But I think if you look around college basketball, key guys – really key guys – are hardly coming out of the game on a lot of teams. And that’s kind of how we’ve played here [with other top players].

“Right now I think Chris Quinn – certainly his play is fabulous – but his personality and demeanor on the court for us are really important. I don’t know if we can be without him on the floor given where we’re at. If we were 3-2, maybe you’re stealing him a rest. But I don’t think we can afford to. We need his presence out there.”