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Men’s Basketball: Weak schedule dooms Irish tourney hopes

Michael Bryan | Thursday, January 28, 2010

It was another strong effort against an elite opponent, but another loss and opportunity down the drain for Notre Dame Wednesday.

In all four Big East losses this year, the Irish have been in it for the first 30 minutes. They’ve shown they can play with the best of the best. But with each passing loss, Notre Dame loses one of its very limited chances to make a big leap towards its goals.

In the 90-72 loss to No. 3 Villanova, small miscues doomed Notre Dame. The team missed 11 free throws and turned the ball over 14 times. Against a deeper and more talented team, you can’t give them that kind of help and win.

And thanks to those errors (and a poor defensive effort), Notre Dame is running out of chances to prove they belong back in the Big Dance.

It was another competitive game, but a loss that drops the Irish to 4-4 in the Big East and costs them one of their few shots to truly bolster their NCAA Tournament résumé.

Notre Dame’s non-conference strength of schedule ranked 342nd toughest out of 347 teams according to the latest Pomeroy rankings. Even with three games against top 10 teams in Big East play, the team’s overall strength of schedule rank is 199th.

So when it comes down to Selection Sunday, when numbers like RPI and Pomeroy ratings become critical, it’s vital that Notre Dame has a big road win or two over top Big East opponents. The opportunities to impress the tournament committee simply aren’t there with the scheduling of recent years.

This year is hardly the first that Irish coach Mike Brey’s squad has faced cupcakes before conference play. Each season, though, there’s been the same justification: the Big East is the one of the deepest, most talented and physical conferences in the nation, and the Irish can prove themselves come January.

But take a look around the elite programs the Irish have fallen to. Syracuse faced North Carolina, Cal and Florida, all ranked programs at the time. Connecticut also faced the Tar Heels, along with Texas, Duke and Kentucky.

The Orange and Huskies have no fear when scheduling, and even if they disappoint in Big East play (as UConn has this year relative to their standards), they stand a far higher chance of returning to the NCAA Tournament.

All in all, Notre Dame’s scheduling has been abysmal and puts excess pressure on the team to have a strong Big East record every year. In a conference where even the teams 10 through 12 are dangerous, that’s a lot to ask.

For the Irish to meet their goals of being a tournament team every year, they have to pull off season-defining wins in the Big East and on the road. A win over a top-ten team like West Virginia is a nice line for the resume, but Notre Dame’s rout of Louisville last year at home only earned them a higher seed in the NIT.

If the Irish can’t start scheduling tougher opponents before the Big East season, their success will depend on upsetting the consistent frontrunners — Georgetown, Syracuse, UConn, Pittsburgh and Villanova.

Until then, Notre Dame will end up in the same destination as last year during this season’s NCAA tournament — at home watching.

The views expressed in this column are those of the anchor and not necessarily The Observer.
Contact Michael Bryan at [email protected]edu