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Irish enter Big East as No. 2 seed

Mike Gotimer | Thursday, March 10, 2011

After completing one of the best regular seasons in school history, No. 4 Notre Dame heads to the Big East Championship as the No. 2 seed in the conference and looks to take the first step in having one of the program’s best postseasons ever.

In what is arguably the strongest conference tournament in NCAA history — which boasts a field that includes as many as 11 teams that could make the NCAA Tournament — the Irish (25-5, 14-4 Big East) earned a double bye and will open up action in the quarterfinals, which is crucial in a conference that boasts nine teams ranked in the ESPN/USA Today top-25, seven of whom also appear in the Associated Press’ top-25.

While Notre Dame was not left for dead at the beginning of the season, few had high expectations for the Irish after the departure of starters Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson, and the Big East coaches picked Notre Dame to finish seventh in the 16-team league. Four short months later, however, the Irish find themselves ranked in the top-five of either poll for the first time since the 2002-03 season, which was the last time Notre Dame reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. This time around, the Irish are one of the favorites to win the Big East Championship and remain in contention for a coveted No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Irish coach Mike Brey, who won his third Big East Coach of the Year award in the last five seasons Tuesday, recognized his team’s potential early in the season with its win in the November’s Old Spice Classic and is more than thrilled with how the season has progressed in the vaunted Big East.

“I always go in thinking ‘survival’ in this league and getting one of the bids, and then once we get to nine [Big East wins], then I start thinking about gravy or dessert or whatever,” Brey said in his March 2 teleconference. “Certainly the way we won, the different ways we won, the guys that helped us win in Orlando got me energized coming out of there that, you know, we could be pretty darn good. We were better earlier than I thought we would be — I thought we’d be good — but certainly once you get moving toward eight or nine [conference wins], then you start wanting to be greedy.

“Obviously the pattern of the league when we got out of [facing Marquette and Pittsburgh back-to-back] and then we had that nine-day gap, you know the skies kind of opened up where you could frame it as chasing down the leader of the league,” he said.

Although Brey picked up another prestigious honor, he was not the only member of the Irish to win one of the Big East’s top-four awards. Fourth-year forward Tim Abromaitis was named Big East Scholar Athlete of the Year, and senior guard Ben Hansbrough became Notre Dame’s first Big East Conference Player of the Year winner since Harangody won the award in 2008. Hansbrough’s win marked the second time that Brey won Coach of the Year honors in the same season that the Irish boasted the conference’s top player. Brey said he believes that his star guard will enjoy the individual accolades but would rather see his team succeed.

“I think individual honors for Ben … and you know you probably say, ‘oh BS,’ but you guys have been around this psyche now for a while and you’ve been around it this year — it’s pure in wanting his team to win,” Brey said. “It’s extremely pure, it started back in June, so I firmly believe … his team doing things is something he wants to remember and put his mark on as he goes on to play in the NBA and comes back to reunions, et cetera.”

The Irish are certainly off to an auspicious start in New York, but they would undoubtedly like to return to South Bend with a conference championship to go along with their individual accolades. While the Irish have played in the Big East semifinals before, including a 53-51 loss to West Virginia last year, they’ve set their focus on reaching the program’s first championship game.

“The one thing we talked about even back in the fall and I talked about it over the summer was our program, we’ve gotten an identity and a respect and a rhythm in this league now, and we’ve played on Friday night here in New York in the semis, but our program’s never played on Saturday night,” Brey said to bigeast.org after receiving his Coach of the Year award. “And I verbalized that — I haven’t talked about the NCAA bracket, I haven’t talked about anything but, ‘I wonder what it would be like to play on Saturday night at the Garden,’ and I think this group has embraced that and we’re [going to] try like heck to get to that.”

Notre Dame finds itself on a favorable side of the bracket to accomplish that goal as the Irish boast a 6-2 record against the teams they could potentially play before Saturday night’s final. The other double bye on their side is No. 3 seed Louisville, who the Irish beat 89-79 in overtime Feb. 9. In Notre Dame’s first game, however, the Irish will face No. 7 Cincinnati or No. 15 South Florida.

The Irish will tip off at Madison Square Garden tonight at 7 p.m. on ESPN.