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ND Women’s Basketball Analysis: Team attempts to earn bye

Jay Fitzpatrick | Tuesday, February 26, 2008

With six games left to play in Notre Dame’s conference schedule, Irish coach Muffet McGraw said her team needed to go 4-2 if it wanted to secure a first-round bye in the Big East tournament. So far, everything is right on schedule.

The Irish come home on Wednesday after their three-game road trip – the longest in the Big East this season – having gone 2-1. Notre Dame beat No. 21 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome on Feb. 16 and outlasted DePaul on Sunday with a two-point win.

Notre Dame did slip up once on the road trip, a 57-51 loss at No. 4 Rutgers last Tuesday, but that loss is to be expected in the Big East.

Even though that loss did not sever Notre Dame’s chances of a bye, it did expose an alarming trend for the Irish this season. Notre Dame has beaten inferior teams all season, but has struggled mightily against other ranked opponents. Other than Rutgers, the Irish played three teams currently ranked in the top five, and were blown out in two of them – both at the Joyce Center.

Notre Dame played No. 1 Connecticut on Jan. 27 and lost 81-64 and then lost to No. 3 Tennessee 87-63 on Jan. 5. The Irish also lost to No. 13 West Virginia in Morgantown 56-50, a remarkably close finish after the Irish managed only 11 first-half points.

Currently, only Connecticut (13-1), Rutgers (12-1) and West Virginia (11-2) sit ahead of the Irish (9-4) in the conference standings. But what makes the final three games so crucial for Notre Dame is the logjam behind it.

Syracuse, Louisville and Pittsburgh all sit one game back of the Irish at 8-5 and DePaul is 7-6, still within striking distance of the earning the bye.

One major factor in deciding the No. 4 seed in the Big East tournament is scheduling. The Irish have already faced their toughest conference tests this season in the Huskies and Scarlet Knights, and look to finish off the year against some of the dregs in the bottom of the standings.

The Orange still have to host the Mountaineers before traveling to Piscataway, N.J., on Saturday for a matchup with Rutgers, meaning they could conceivably finish the season 1-2. Louisville and Pittsburgh each have easier roads to the tournament; each plays West Virginia and two other schools that are in the bottom half of the league standings.

In its last three regular season games, Notre Dame will play host to South Florida (3-10) on Wednesday and Seton Hall (3-10) on Saturday before finishing with St. John’s (4-9) on March 4.

On paper, those games look like they should be easy wins, but McGraw fears these games the most heading into the stretch run. This is the last season in which only 12 of the 16 Big East teams make the conference tournament, leaving the bottom four to start their offseasons a week earlier than they would like to. Currently, the Red Storm occupy the No. 12 spot, but the Bulls and Pirates are only a game out. This means that Notre Dame, with its postseason spot all but guaranteed, will be playing teams that are in must-win situations from here on out.

McGraw is not the type of coach that will let her team slack off at the end of a season, so she needs tell her team to stay focused and to make sure it wins these next three games.

The worst thing that could happen for Notre Dame at this point is any kind of letdown. Last year, the Irish had a two-game home skid to end the regular season and then lost in the first round of the Big East tournament to DePaul. Even though the Irish still made the NCAA Tournament, they were a No. 8 seed and had to play No. 1 North Carolina in the second round – not the ideal situation for any team.

The best way for Notre Dame to make sure that they are the bully picking off middle-ranked teams in March is to finish with three solid wins that would impress the NCAA Selection Committee.

The Irish have a knack for winning games they are supposed to. They just need to do it three more times.