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Men’s Basketball: Irish chasing title dreams

Andrew Gastelum | Friday, February 18, 2011

Chasing it down.

Irish coach Mike Brey’s self-proclaimed theme of 2011 for his team’s phenomenal run continues on the road Saturday in Morgantown, W. Va., as the No. 8 Irish (21-4, 10-3) try to chase down the regular season Big East title. The Irish are currently in second place, two games behind No. 4 Pittsburgh, whose only conference loss was to the Irish at home. But Brey remains outstandingly confident in his veteran players, banking on their experience and chemistry together.

“What is the definition of a great team?” Brey asked himself as a guest on ESPN’s Rome Is Burning Tuesday. “I think at times that we are truly a great team because we play together and we really know how to play off of each other.”

Waiting for the Irish is another veteran squad, a West Virginia team that has struggled of late and is in the toughest stretch of its schedule, in which it faces four ranked teams, including No. 4 Pittsburgh and No. 13 Connecticut.

“We are going into one of the top-three toughest places to play against a team with their back against the wall,” Brey said. “But they still have that nucleus of guys who played on a Final Four team.”

Senior guard Casey Mitchell — who averages 15.4 points per game, including a 23-point performance on 7-of-13 3-point shooting in a 63-52 loss to No. 17 Syracuse — leads the Mountaineers (16-9, 7-6) into the game.

But other than Mitchell, West Virginia has struggled to play consistently for a full game, as the Mountaineers relinquished a four-point lead at halftime to the Orange while only connecting on one shot in the last eight minutes of Monday’s game. They have been outscored in the second half of their last five games and have lost their last four meetings against ranked opponents.

Meanwhile, the Irish have done the exact opposite, winning their last seven Big East games, most recently Saturday’s 78-55 win over South Florida in which six starters scored in double- figures for the second time this year.

Sophomore forward Jack Cooley led the Irish attack against the Bulls — which included a 22-0 run early in the first half — with 18 points and eight rebounds while making his first nine shots. Carleton Scott also recorded his sixth double-double of the year with 13 points and 11 rebounds.

But the unsung hero of the last few games for Notre Dame has been freshman point guard Eric Atkins, who leads the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio. Atkins has recorded 19 dimes in the past three games, drawing a comparison to an NBA All-Star from Brey and leading scorer Ben Hansbrough.

“Ben told me the other day of how much [Atkins] reminds him of [Celtics point guard] Rajon Rondo,” Brey said at a Thursday press conference. “When he is in the game we have an understanding that we want to get him the ball, especially in transition. We want to take advantage of his ability to push the ball and find his teammates.”

Atkins will be up against senior point guard Joe Mazzulla, who Brey called the toughest player in the league after last year’s 53-51 win over the Irish in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament. Junior forward Kevin Jones, who has averaged 12.7 points and seven rebounds per game, assists the lightning-quick Mazzulla. Brey said his squad makes up for its lack of speed with defense and size, and that will be crucial to Saturday’s matchup.

“What we don’t do with foot speed, our length and size help us. What has really shown up is our defensive rebounding, which is really what this game will come down to,” Brey said.

The Irish take to the road in hopes of continuing its three-game road winning streak against the Mountaineers at 1 p.m. Saturday on CBS.