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Men’s Basketball Media Day: Let’s play some hoops

Fran Tolan | Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Last season, the Irish won 26 games, including 14 in Big East play. Their reward?

Try one of the most grueling schedules in college basketball. In addition to the always-formidable Big East gauntlet, Notre Dame’s slate includes an early-season trip to the prestigious Maui Invitational and non-conference tilts against Ohio State and UCLA.

“At times I’ve looked at [the schedule] during the summer and wondered what I was thinking when we did all this,” Irish coach Mike Brey said in his media day press conference Tuesday. “… The thing that’s crazy – in the midst of what the Big East is this year and the midst of what we’ve been given in the Big East – we’re just gonna go to Pauley Pavilion one weekend. We’re just gonna take a break and just go play UCLA on the road. Now that’s – I should have my head examined on that one.”

Regardless of whether Brey was joking about a possible psychiatric assessment, he said he thinks his team is ready to face the test that its Big East and non-conference opponents present. The squad returns four starters and four seniors from a group that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago.

“A key for us is pacing this group through a long season. It’s the toughest basketball schedule we’ve ever played in our history, given what the league is and [who we play] in the non-league,” Brey said. “So [it is] an exciting challenge, a challenge that this group should have when you’ve got seven older guys that have contributed.”

Brey certainly could echo the “Dive Right In” slogan that coach Charlie Weis presented to the Irish football team before the season began. But Brey said he will retain the mantra that he repeated last season, constantly urging his players to “Dream Big Dreams.”

“This group deserves to be able to dream about it and think about it,” Brey said. “I mean, that’s realistic for this group. They’ve done some really great things for our basketball program. I want them thinking about it and going for it.”

Still, Brey said he is reluctant to rank his team among the top 10 in the country – a group in which some experts have included Notre Dame.

“I don’t know if we’re that good. The game that sticks in my mind is Washington State …” Brey said, referring to Notre Dame’s 61-41 loss to the Cougars in the second round of last season’s NCAA Tournament. “I think we’ve got top-25 ability [but] I’ve seen some of the single digit [rankings] and I don’t know if I can agree with that right now. We’ve got a lotta potential, though, and a lot to work with.”

Brey said he is not willing to consider his team among the upper echelon in the NCAA because it has not shown enough of a penchant for dirty work on the defensive end.

“The reason I can’t agree with anything single digits or top 10 or top 12 is I just haven’t seen us defensive rebound at key times and get key loose balls,” he said. “We have not done that consistently enough yet and that’s something that they know.”

Brey said since the Irish are somewhat undersized in the physical Big East, they must learn to rebound better as a team.

“The way our team is built and against some of the athletes that can get up on the backboard that we play, it’s doing it as a unit,” he said. “Getting that key loose ball and that key defensive rebound – and I think that’s an area where we’re weak at right now.”

But the Irish have at least seven players that will play significant minutes, so the burden of rebounding and lockdown defense can be spread out. Brey said Jonathan Peoples emerged as one of Notre Dame’s top reserves on the team’s summer trip to Ireland and gives the Irish even more viable options than they expected to have.

“I almost feel like we have seven starters. I would have said six starters before we went to Ireland but the way Jon Peoples played when we went to Ireland, I feel like we have seven starters,” Brey said. “I’m really happy with how he played and how confident he has gotten coming off that trip.”

Even with the increased stress on defense and rebounding, Brey warned fans not to expect the Irish to play in too many low-scoring games this season. He said the Notre Dame offense will retain the same up-tempo style that has defined it in recent years.

“That’s the way the game should be played,” he said. “I just don’t know how people can watch 52-48 [games]. I mean, come on, are you kidding me? I mean, we’re trying to sell tickets too… [Our style] has become a niche in our league that we’ve evolved to, to survive and thrive – quite frankly – in the league.”

Brey said he has seen improvements in the play of each of the Irish starters and that the experienced squad is constantly looking to improve.

“These are older guys, they’re intelligent guys and their basketball I.Q. is really high. It’s certainly teaching an honors class when you work with these guys,” the coach said. “They want it bad individually and they want it bad as a group.”