Reality isn’t so bad
A 12-game win streak earlier this season moved the bar up a few pegs, but now the Fighting Irish stand at 16-4 overall and 4-3 in Big East play. It’s the fourth straight season head coach Mike Brey’s squad has started the conference slate with a 4-3 record. Brey likes to remind folks how difficult it is playing in this league, and Saturday’s results back up that claim. With both Syracuse and Louisville slipping up on the road, a regular-season conference title is still very much up for grabs.
The Irish are still in the thick of things after a wild weekend of Big East Conference action.
The Fighting Irish turned their attention from that goal to simply figuring out a way to survive when it was revealed earlier this week that sixth-year senior Scott Martin would sit out indefinitely with a knee injury. Notre Dame’s bench had struggled in recent weeks and a clear-cut replacement for Martin in the starting lineup wasn’t there. The coaching staff and other four starters trusted senior forward Tom Knight the most and he ignited for a career-best 17 points in Saturday’s 73-65 victory at South Florida. His previous high was nine points against Sacred Heart on Dec. 19, 2011. His seven rebounds versus the Bulls tied a career high.
The problem, which includes replacing Martin’s leadership, hasn’t been solved, but it’s a lot less daunting than it first appeared.
Now Notre Dame will embark on the rest of the 2012-13 campaign with a bigger lineup and, because of how this league has a knack for leveling things out, with some preseason goals still within reach.
When Grant is that good …
… The Irish can be great.
Saturday marked the 16th time this season junior guard Jerian Grant put up double digits (18 points). But it wasn’t just quantity against the Bulls that provided such a boost, the quality of his shots and how confidently he operated throughout the contest was a positive sign for this program. The mental side of the game is what’s tripped up Grant at times, but he was aggressive and focused on both ends of the court for Notre Dame in a must-win game.
His team-best eight assists shows how versatile he can be when at the top of his game. Head coach Mike Brey’s partial when it comes to Grant and junior point guard Eric Atkins, often calling the duo the best backcourt in the country. When they’re both clicking at the same time, that’s not that much of an exaggeration. Atkins gave the squad a huge lift with a 3-for-5 effort from behind the arc en route to 13 points, and he’s been the more consistent of the two. If Grant can keep competing at this level, some resume-building victories are still very possible.
With about six weeks until the Big East Championship at Madison Square Garden in New York City, only 1.5 games separate the third-place team from the 10th in the league standings. Finishing in the top four means a double-bye in the conference tournament. Though it’s a major advantage to merge into the annual melee at MSG in the quarterfinals, doing so hasn’t guaranteed a high success rate.
Since the Big East seeded the conference as a while instead of by divisions in 2003-04, a top-four seed has won the tournament five times. Outsiders have won it all like Louisville as the No. 7 seed, Connecticut as the No. 9 seed in 2010-11, No. 7 Pittsburgh in 2007-08 and No. 9 Syracuse in 2005-06. Georgetown was the No. 8 seed in 2009-10 when it lost by two points to No. 3 West Virginia in the finals. Syracuse was the No. 6 seed in a championship loss to No. Louisville in 2008-09 and the No. 6 Pittsburgh made it to the title game in 2005-06. West Virginia, as the No. 8 seed, advanced to the finals and lost to No. 3 Syracuse in 2004-05.
What does this all mean? Well, for Notre Dame it means it still has a fighting chance for that first league tournament crown if it can roll into NYC with some confidence and momentum. It’s still going to take some time for this program to work out the kinks with inexperienced players rotating in while sixth-year senior Scott Martin is sidelined with a knee injury. But with a little momentum, anything is possible in Manhattan in March.
Big East scoreboard
Seton Hall (13-6, 2-4) at St. John’s (12-7, 4-3)
Rutgers (12-6, 3-4) at Connecticut (12-5, 2-3)
Villanova 75, Syracuse 71
Georgetown 53, Louisville 51
Notre Dame 73, South Florida 65
Marquette 81, Providence 71
Pittsburgh 93, DePaul 55
Standings (prior to Sunday’s games]
Notre Dame 4-3
St. John’s 4-3
Seton Hall 2-4
South Florida 1-6