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Myers: Big win hides fact that the road only gets tougher (Feb. 9)

Laura Myers | Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Notre Dame has been no stranger to tough competition this season. The Irish have played thrillers against No. 15 UCLA and No. 2 Connecticut at home, and battled No. 9 Kentucky and No. 2 Baylor on the road.

That they lost in each of those games barely mattered in the context of the season. In fact, they gained a spot in the AP poll after falling 79-76 to Connecticut Jan. 8.

But now, while basking in the success of the second-widest Big East regular-season victory in school history, the Irish need to prepare themselves. It’s about to get a lot tougher, and the last five games of the season are going to matter.

After a home game against Rutgers Saturday, Notre Dame will have a week off. The last four games come in a stretch of just 10 days, and look something like this:

  • At No. 2 Connecticut, which leads Notre Dame in the Big East standings by one game.
  • On national television at No. 17 West Virginia, which tonight held Connecticut to just 57 points in a close, 57-51 loss.
  • Against Cincinnati at home, which should be a break for the Irish providing it doesn’t get overlooked.
  • On national television at No. 14 DePaul, which is right behind Notre Dame in the Big East standings.

Four days later, the Irish will be in Hartford, Conn. for the Big East tournament. When they actually start playing is what’s up for grabs.

Notre Dame has yet to beat a ranked team on the road this year, but will need to get over that hurdle soon. While a top four seed and byes in the first two rounds in the Big East tournament looks likely at this point, it’s not locked up.

The Irish stand second in the Big East with a 10-1 record, and DePaul is right behind at 9-1. Beyond those two, three teams — Marquette, Georgetown and Rutgers — each have conference records of 7-3.

One loss in the next five games, then, wouldn’t hurt. Two should keep Notre Dame in the top four. Three, and there’s a possibility someone else slips in.

Notre Dame lost four Big East games last season, just enough to fall to a No. 5-seed in the conference tournament. It faced No. 1-seed Connecticut in the semifinals, and lost.

Now, none of these road games, even the one in Storrs, should be looked at as automatic losses. The Irish played Connecticut closer than any other Big East team has this year.

But none of the games should be looked at as automatic wins, either.

The Irish have won eight straight, including an easy 80-58 defeat of No. 16 Georgetown on Jan. 18 and tonight’s complete destruction of Seton Hall. But the games leading up to Tuesday’s tilt with the Pirates showed some weaknesses on both sides of the ball.

Irish coach Muffet McGraw said she had addressed her concerns during practice, and her players strongly agreed.

“When Coach is happy, everybody’s happy,” junior guard Natalie Novosel said, humorously alluding to what goes on at practice when McGraw isn’t so cheerful.

Tuesday night, at least, McGraw was in a good mood.

“Offensively it’s probably the best game we’ve played together in maybe the last two games,” she said. “I was happy with both ends of the floor.”

The team came together, capitalizing on each other’s successes and making up for each other’s mistakes. It was by no means a perfect effort; the team overthrew several passes, committed 19 turnovers and missed 10 free throws.

But when you’re talking about perfection from a basketball standpoint, 70 percent shooting from the field after 32 minutes might qualify. McGraw’s explanation for not having enough offensive rebounds on the stat sheet was simply that they didn’t miss enough shots.

Sophomore point guard Skylar Diggins, who played her most complete game of the season Tuesday, said the Irish are getting better every day.

Notre Dame already has a good chance in each of its next five games. If it can continue to improve every game, to minimize errors and play complete team basketball, it should be able to come out on the other side of the regular season having finally proved it can do more than simply hang around with the toughest competition.