When head coach Mike Brey’s UND squad makes the trek to Morgantown for Saturday’s 1:00 p.m. match-up with WVU, it Will Do so in the hopes of earning a win and chasing down lead-leading Pittsburgh for the Big East Conference regular season championship.
Whenever a team is even in the conversation about Big East title contenders in mid-to-late February, it means things have gone well. That’s certainly the case for Notre Dame, which is No. 8 in the Associated Press rankings and has won its last seven games (all in league play), including a 56-51 win over the then-No. 2 Panthers at the Petersen Events Center on Jan. 24.
But that recent positive swing came on the heels of a bit of adversity. Starting with a 70-58 New Year’s Day setback at then-No. 5 Syracuse, the Irish (21-4, 10-3) lost three of five games. All of those losses came by double digits, and the last two (at Marquette and at St. John’s) were 22- and 18-point setbacks, respectively.
So how did Brey, who has patrolled the sidelines in South Bend for more than a decade now, put his team back on the right path?
“You just understand that in the league, you’re going to take blows,” he said. “How do you respond? Everybody in this league this year has gone through their tough stuff. The ones that can bounce back from it are the ones that get the NCAA Tournament bids. The ones that can’t don’t. We’ve lived both sides of that in my 11 years in the league.”
Simple enough. But there’s no easy answer to how a team “bounces back” from that adversity, which UND certainly has.
There’s no doubt that Notre Dame, with its impressive resume (including wins over then-No. 9 Georgetown, then-No. 9 Connecticut, then-No. 2 Pitt and then-No. 15 Louisville) will certainly be in the Big Dance. Indeed, the rest of the season is basically a fight for a lofty seed for Brey’s Irish.
That’s not quite the case for the Mountaineers, who still are in good position for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, thanks largely to high RPI and strength of schedule rankings (both in the top 25 nationally) but must find a way to win some games against higher-rated opposition in the final weeks of the season to truly feel comfortable come Selection Sunday.
WVU (16-9, 7-6) has swooned a bit of late, losing five of its last nine contests. It will need to find a way to with at least three of its last five games in the regular season to finish above .500 in Big East play -- a difficult task, given that four of those games come against teams ranked in the top 16 nationally.
So why has Notre Dame thrived in the wake of the loss of Harangody (a situation few expected to go this well, as the Irish were picked to finish seventh in the Big East preseason coaches’ poll), while life without Butler (and Devin Ebanks and Wellington Smith) has been tough for West Virginia to overcome?
Bob Huggins and Casey Mitchell
On multiple occasions Thursday, Brey used several of the same words to describe his team this year. Maturity. Leadership. Poise. Experience.
Those intangible factors, according to Brey, are the reason Notre Dame had second half comebacks in wins over Georgia (89-83 in double overtime), Wisconsin (58-51) and Marquette (80-75, just three games after the Golden Eagles had beaten Notre Dame by 22).
Experience shouldn’t be an issue for WVU, which starts two juniors and three seniors.
But the team’s poise is in question after its second half struggles in recent weeks. The Mountaineers have been outscored in the final 20 minutes of their last five games and in 10 of their 13 Big East games.
Is that related to any lack of maturity or leadership, factors Butler and Smith provided in spades as seniors for last season’s Big East champion and national semifinalist West Virginia team?
“It hasn’t been the most storybook year,” fourth-year WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “We lose [shooting guard] Casey [Mitchell] in the middle of the conference season for three games. Then you bring him back and try to get him back into the flow, into the rotation. It’s been one thing after another.
“In all honesty, what’s effected us is losing our entire freshman class. You take away two guards and the length those guys had, and we can’t do the things we really anticipated doing when you sit down and try to prepare for the season. So that’s hurt more than anything. You’re going to lose guys. I think we all knew Dev was going to leave [for the NBA], and Da’Sean was a senior and Wells was a senior, but you kind of plan for that. I think what’s effected us is losing the entire freshman class.”
Regardless of that adversity, Huggins and the Mountaineers still have every opportunity to advance to the NCAA Tournament and could even earn a mid-tier seed with a strong conclusion to the regular season and a run in the Big East Tournament.
That’s not something to be sneered at, according to Brey.
“They’re trying to figure out who they are offensively,” the Irish head coach said. “They’ve missed some guys. Guys have been suspended. They’ve had injuries, guys not there, and it’s been a little disjointed. To be in the position they’re in, given the things they’ve had to handle, they’re in pretty darn good position.”
Huggins, who isn’t one to sugar-coat things, seemed to agree.
“I think we’ve played okay. We just haven’t shot the ball very well,” he said. “We kind of depend on a couple of the guys that helped score the ball for us a year ago, and they’re struggling right now. Hopefully it’s about time they snap out of it and start making some shots. But I don’t think we’ve played bad.”