by Craig Dimitri
On Saturday, #6 Villanova will try to extend its three-game winning streak, when it takes on slumping Notre Dame in South Bend... the Irish have lost five of their last six contests.
The Viewpoint on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Villanova leads all-time, 14-12. Surprisingly, the schools did not face each other until Jan. 10, 1970, when the host Irish won 94-92 in OT (quite a barnburner for that era). For the next 14 years, there was an annual series, as Digger Phelps liked to bring his team to the Palestra to face VU and La Salle (at the time, a power). Presumably, the opening of the Pavilion in 1985-86 ended the series. This presumption is based on the fact that the last game took place in January 1984, and the teams did not meet again until Notre Dame ended its long-time independence by joining the Big East for the 1995-96 season, and has now been around for a decade (hard to believe). Of course, then as now, they remain an independent in ND's signature sport, football.
As members of the Big East, Villanova has dominated the series, winning nine of the 11 contests over the past decade (ND didn't win a Big East game against VU until Jan. 10, 2004). Last season, there were two regular-season encounters. On Jan. 8, ND won 78-72 at the Joyce Center, while Villanova won on Jan. 26 at the Wachovia Center, 65-60.
Mike Brey (6th season)
Brey (part of the Coach K/Duke family tree) was introduced at Notre Dame in July 2000, having received a seven-year contract. As the successful coach at Delaware for five seasons, Brey had been in the running, after John McLeod had been fired at the end of the 1998-99 season. But ND had decided upon Matt Doherty, then an assistant to Roy Williams at Kansas. However, Doherty unexpectedly resigned after one season, in order to become the coach at his alma mater, North Carolina, upon the retirement of Bill Guthridge.
Doherty undoubtedly has had second thoughts about that decision, after his disastrous tenure at UNC, which culminated with his head on the Chapel Hill chopping block in 2003 (ironically, to be replaced by his old mentor Williams, also a UNC graduate). But it was good news for Brey (a Dukie, also ironically, replacing a Tar Heel).
This added to some chronic instability in the program, as ND now had its third coach in three years. When Brey replaced Doherty in the summer of 2000, ND hadn't reached the NCAA tournament in a decade: its last dance had come in 1990. Digger Phelps, now an ESPN analyst, had gotten the Irish to 14 NCAA tournaments, including six straight appearances from 1985-90. And Phelps had done it all, without the benefit of conference affiliation and the chance at an automatic bid that comes with it. Moreover, for much of Digger's tenure, the tournament was a lot smaller than it is now. Accordingly, although football (of course) dwarfs basketball in South Bend, ND had always had a solid program. The fan base, alumni, and administration expect success on the hardwood as well as the gridiron.
Fortunately for Brey, he had a lot of success in the beginning. Coaching a heterogeneous mix of players, recruited by his two predecessors, Brey got the Irish back into the tournament, in each of his first three seasons. It was a particularly impressive feat, given that ND hadn't gone for ten years, prior to his arrival. And the Irish played well in those three NCAA appearances, too. The Irish got to the second round in 2001 and 2002 (in the latter year, losing to Duke and Brey's mentor, Coach K), and even making the Sweet 16 in 2003.
Naturally, ND was thrilled with Brey. Even after his fourth team only went to the NIT, he received, in October 2004, the second two-year extension of his tenure, and he is currently signed through the 2010-11 season. During Brey's first four seasons, ND and Syracuse were the only schools in the Big East to have posted winning conference records every year, so clearly he was doing something right.
However, the wheels have come off a little bit. After three straight NCAAs, Brey's teams have now gone to two NITs in 2004 and 2005. The Irish entered the 2005 Big East tournament, likely needing only a single win over woeful Rutgers to get into the NCAAs. But they promptly lost, and were relegated to the NIT. (After which, they quickly folded against Holy Cross in the first round, at home.)
This season does not look any more promising. Notre Dame won't make the NCAAs, unless they win the Big East tournament - and frankly, even making the new Big East tournament is going to require a substantial turnaround, as we shall see, below. Of course, Brey certainly isn't in any current danger (he's got five years on his contract, after the conclusion of this one). And he's reached a postseason tournament, in each of his five seasons. For better or worse, his roster is now composed entirely of players he recruited (and his critics pointedly note that his most recent teams have tapered off, compared to the first three). The honeymoon has worn off a bit in South Bend. Moreover, the recent revival of ND's football fortunes has not helped matters, as its success is juxtaposed against the hurdles that the basketball team still must overcome.
How They've Done So Far
1-5 Big East, 10-7 overall.
(Note: all ranks are this week only.)
Seven of ND's wins have come against cupcake competition, at home: Lafayette, Hofstra, Florida International, Niagara, Columbia, Fordham, and Wofford (the last of whom, they defeated, by only three points). They also have a cupcake victory @ Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne, where they defeated the Mastodons (yes, that is IPFW's actual nickname) by just two points.
Among major conference competition, their one decent victory is @ Alabama, and a good loss @ #15/14 NC State. They also suffered a home loss to #32/26 Michigan.
Nonetheless, ND entered Big East play with a respectable 9-2 record, and a fighting chance at reaching the NCAA tournament. Then the roof caved in. All five of ND's Big East defeats (@ #12/10 Pitt, @ DePaul, #25/24 Syracuse, @ Marquette, and most recently, #21/#27 Georgetown in double OT) have been by single digits. The lone victory was a 15-point triumph over Providence, at the Joyce Center.
As a result, ND is already in such a hole that even finishing in the top 12, will be very difficult. Their next stretch is absolutely brutal: #6 VU, @ #9/13 WVU, @ #22/23 Louisville- all of which they will be expected to lose. Thus, they could easily be 1-8 by Feb. 5. Plus, to top it off, having to go to #1 Connecticut in February. So even before the Super Bowl takes place, this season may very well be effectively over.
What To Look For
ND is slow, even by Big East standards, and also plays three guards. While playing three guards, rather than two, will to some degree mitigate VU's four-guard attack, ND will have nowhere near the speed and quickness to keep up with Villanova, even if Allan Ray isn't available. Having seen the USF tape, Brey would probably opt to pack in a zone and deny Villanova penetration, praying that Ray won't be available and that the other shooters have an off-night. USF, a team not blessed with talent or depth, has given opponents a solid strategy for defeating 'Nova.
Chris Quinn has to carry the Irish on his shoulders (against Georgetown, he played all 50 minutes, scored 26 points and dealt 10 assists). Torin Francis and Colin Falls (a good three-point shooter, clicking at over 40%) also average scoring in double-figures.
Also, the fact remains that there are no easy games in the Big East. Despite its 1-5 record, ND has been competitive in all of its Big East games and overall, has only one loss in double-digits (@ NC State in December).
I'll provide a full recap after the game.