Brey keeps the faith in Irish's NCAA chances

February, 6, 2009
02/06/09
12:39
PM ET

Notre Dame will still make the NCAA tournament, according to coach Mike Brey.

It was one of the many things we discussed on the latest ESPNU Podcast (Listen )

The pronouncement is based on a firm belief that the Irish are too veteran, too talented and too salty from losing six in a row to let a season which started out with Big East title hopes be flushed away with a possible NIT berth.

"I do, I do,'' Brey said by phone, in response to whether he believes the Irish will make the NCAAs, as he left practice at UCLA Friday afternoon. "The frame of mind has to be that way. There's no question that's our frame. We're just trying to get that first one. There's so much crazy stuff that can happen.''

Notre Dame is 3-7 in the Big East, 12-9 overall. The high-profile win over Texas in the Maui Invitational semifinals in November is bankable for the Irish. Losing to North Carolina and Ohio State doesn't hurt, either. But the wins over bottom-feeders Loyola Marymount, South Carolina Upstate, Furman, Delaware State and Savannah State helped push the Irish's nonconference strength of schedule to 294.

But the difference with the Irish, unlike other teams trying to get on the NCAA bubble, is they still have a slew of opportunities for quality wins -- beginning with UCLA on Saturday in Pauley Pavilion.

Notre Dame plays Louisville and Villanova at home and visits West Virginia, Providence and Connecticut. The Irish have to win, without question, against South Florida, Rutgers and St. John's.

Brey joked with a reporter after the loss to Cincinnati on Wednesday, the sixth in a row, that the Irish have a "very good NIT résumé right now and if it changes you'll be the first to know. I know who we are."

Brey won't have to worry about making the Big East tournament, something that was a possibility the past three seasons with only 12 out of the 16 in the field. The Irish could also have opportunities for quality wins in New York, too.

All of that keeps Brey positive. "We're hanging in there,'' he said. "It was an unbelievable stretch we just went through.''

That's true. The Irish lost at Louisville and at Syracuse, at home to Connecticut and Marquette and at Pitt and at Cincinnati. But if you're really an NCAA team, you've got to win a few of these games, right? Notre Dame also had an eyesore loss earlier in the Big East schedule, losing at St. John's by six on Jan. 3.

"That was one where the athletic ability got to us, and it showed our weakness,'' Brey said. "I knew when we were entering this league that we weren't winning 14 games like last season. I knew we were playing the 'A' schedule. I had no idea it was going to be this hard. We've never played a schedule like this.''

Brey said he put the UCLA game on the schedule because he wanted the Bruins to come back to the refurbished Joyce Center in 2009-10. The Bruins will return in late December next season. While this game could continue the slide, a win could suddenly put the Irish on the bubble again and give them confidence going against Louisville next week.

But to win, even Saturday, there have to be changes. Brey is hoping to infuse some bench energy, so he might take guard Tory Jackson out of the starting lineup. He said putting Zach Hillesland and Ryan Ayers in and out of the starting lineup helped, too. "I need Tory and maybe the change will be good, to change the climate, the rhythm,'' Brey said. Jackson had a decent statistical game against the Bearcats, dishing out six assists, three turnovers and scoring 11 points.

Obviously, there won't be a change in Luke Harangody, who scored 28 points and grabbed 14 boards in the loss to the Bearcats. Harangody is averaging 25.3 points and 13.2 boards a game. Meanwhile, Kyle McAlarney has produced, just not consistently. He made seven 3s in the loss at Syracuse, but missed all five attempts against Cincinnati and was 1-of-6 on 3s against Marquette.

Defensively, the Irish have been a mystery, too.

Notre Dame gave up only 69 points to Connecticut, which is a low for the Irish considering they gave up 93 in consecutive games to Pitt and Cincinnati, the latter which had been offensively challenged. Cincinnati hadn't scored more than 80 since beating Eastern Kentucky in overtime on Dec. 20.

"We defended well but then we couldn't score,'' Brey said of scoring only 61 points versus the Huskies. "We had a great first half [against Pitt and Cincinnati], but then we couldn't get a stop. I have to scratch my head a bit.''

Notre Dame led 45-39 at the half at Pitt. The Irish were tied 37-37 at Cincinnati.

Brey said the Irish don't have the same confidence level now, but there isn't any kind of distress in the locker room yet. "That's the crazy thing about college basketball; there are so many wacky stories down the stretch,'' Brey said. "This is a too good a group, too good a group of players for us not to make it interesting down the stretch.''

• Utah coach Jim Boylen made it known in the offseason that the Utes had a schedule worthy of an NCAA bid. The Utes have played it well. Utah is No. 13 in the ESPN InsiderRPI through Thursday. That's right -- No. 13. Utah, which is 15-6 and has key nonconference wins over LSU and Gonzaga, is tied atop the Mountain West with San Diego State at 6-2. The Utes will play the Aztecs on Wednesday. Utah already beat rival BYU in overtime, and its two losses are to San Diego State and UNLV on the road. The Utes' strength of schedule is 11th and its nonconference strength of schedule is 10.

The key was playing games against Green Bay (which just beat Butler and is in second in the Horizon League), Morgan State (which beat Maryland and is a favorite in the MEAC) and losing to high-level teams like Cal, Oklahoma and Utah State. "There's a ripple effect,'' Boylen said. "We beat Gonzaga, which beat Tennessee twice. We beat Mississippi, which beat Kentucky.''

You could add the Utes beat Green Bay, which beat Butler, and go on and on.

Boylen said he met with Utah athletic director Chris Hill in the offseason about scheduling. Hill is on the NCAA tournament selection committee. Hill can't vote to put the Utes in the bracket or talk about Utah, but he can inform his coach on how to schedule smart since the committee looks for these things when it makes selections.

Boylen said he firmly believes the Utes can get an at-large berth even if they don't win the Mountain West tournament. The Utes certainly fit the profile with their current record, barring a complete collapse. The 15-7 mark won't scare anybody -- yet. But if the Utes can stay in the top three in the MWC, with its nonconference slate and high RPI, they may just get a bid. And, with Luke Nevill a tough matchup inside, Utah could be a difficult matchup in the first round.

• Saint Mary's had to beat San Francisco. That may sound odd, but it's true. The Gaels had to win a game without Patty Mills, and they did.

• Portland can probably quiet down about winning the WCC. The Pilots were building the matchup against Gonzaga as a showdown for first. Gonzaga won by 15.

• Arizona keeps putting together an NCAA profile. Nic Wise hit a huge midrange bucket to beat Oregon State in the final minutes Thursday night. The Wildcats are 5-5 in the Pac-10, 15-8 overall and still own quality nonconference wins over Gonzaga, Kansas and San Diego State. If the Wildcats can stay above water and win at least 10 games in the Pac-10, they should get a bid.

• Florida State (29 in RPI) is quietly putting together an NCAA bid. The Seminoles had to beat Georgia Tech and held on for a four-point win.

• Santa Clara beat San Diego, and John Bryant continues to mount an impressive WCC Player of the Year campaign with 23 points and 20 rebounds.

• The New York Post reported that there could be a mass exodus of players if Norm Roberts isn't retained by St. John's. But do those threats ever work? Wouldn't a new coach possibly go through some attrition anyway? How the St. John's situation plays out will be an interesting watch. Roberts is a gentleman, so we'll see if the administration gives him one more year to climb in the standings. There will be plenty of departures in the Big East next season as either seniors or NBA draft-ready underclassmen bolt on teams like Marquette, Syracuse, Connecticut, Pitt, Providence and Louisville.

• Coaches hate must-win tags. But Cal had to beat Washington Thursday night to keep its NCAA path straight. The Bears are 6-4 in the Pac-10 and 17-6 overall. Washington (16-6, 7-3) had some wiggle room but now has been swept by the Bears in a potential tiebreaker situation in the Pac-10.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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