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February 23, 2012

Tim Prister's Full Court Press

Irish Illustrated Editors Column

The question was open-ended, and not really a question at all. It was a statement made to Irish fifth-year senior Scott Martin following Notre Dame's laughingly easy 71-44 victory over West Virginia Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion.

"Twenty wins," said the reporter, throwing out a fact to get the veteran Martin to respond.

"You didn't think that was going to happen, did you guys?" laughed the always congenial Martin, who not only scored 15 points on five 5-of-7 shooting, including 3-of-4 from three-point range, but also limited top Big East player of the year candidate Kevin Jones to 15 points and eight rebounds.

"I believed in us all season. We knew going in that we weren't going to have the personnel that we had. When you lose Abro, that's tough."

Abro, of course, is fellow fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis, who tore up his knee two games back from early-season suspension, sending Notre Dame into a temporary free-fall trying to figure out how to attack the impending Big East season.

In their only three significant games after Abromaitis' injury and before the start of conference play, the Irish lost to Gonzaga, Maryland and Indiana by a combined 38 points to fall to 7-5 on the season. Still, Martin knew there was hope. They are 13-3 ever since.

"If you were in our practices last year, Jerian (Grant) and Eric (Atkins) would kill us, and Jack (Cooley), too," Martin said. "So we knew what we had, it was just a matter of getting them going, getting them confident."

The Irish are handing out confidence in their locker room these days like a bowl full of M&Ms at Halloween. Winners of nine straight in Big East play - a school record - and owners of the sixth straight season of 20 or more victories, which ties Digger Phelps' mark, the Irish aren't even the same deliberate basketball team that started this streak.

Previously relying on their "burn" offense to take down No. 1 Syracuse, Seton Hall on the road, Connecticut on the road, Marquette at home and West Virginia on the road, the Irish confidently have picked up the pace when the mood has struck. They're averaging 75 points per game over the last four and haven't been held under 70. Prior to the recent scoring burst, the Irish had gone eight games in a row without scoring as many as 70 points.

"That aspect of being more efficient offensively and being able to lightning-strike on offense, that was a little evidence of what we've done with teams in the past," Brey said. "I don't know how much we really burned (Wednesday against West Virginia). We were playing and attacking. We wanted to run a little bit when we got it because they're so big and we got some stuff in transition."

Notre Dame had an 8-0 advantage in fast break points against the Mountaineers. The burning Irish are turning into a multi-dimensional offensive team.

Not only are the Irish playing more aggressive offensively, but their shooting accuracy is rapidly on the rise. Brey insisted while the Irish were shooting .430 from the field and .321 from three-point range during the first 19 games that his team was a much better shooting squad than the numbers indicated.

During the last nine games, the Irish have shot .461 from the field (up three percent) and .411 (70-of-180) from three-point range - nearly a 10 percent increase.

"We're trending up as shooters," said Brey when asked how his team could improve in the final three regular-season games. "Our numbers were so bad in early January from the three-point line. Now, thankfully, people weren't shooting very (well) against us, and that has continued.

"We're more confident shooters. (Pat) Connaughton didn't really do anything offensively like he did the other night, but we got 70 up on the board. We scored it."

Nobody exuded more confidence Wednesday night than sophomore guard Jerian Grant, who looked like a lost puppy the first time Notre Dame fans saw him on Nov. 1 in an exhibition game against St. Xavier. Grant has since become a dynamic, slashing, electrifying, distributing two-guard. He's more like a "one-and-a-half guard" with his ability to score - 20 points Wednesday night against West Virginia - and a natural instinct to share the rock (a team-high 136 assists; 4.9 per game).

"He's starting to figure out how good he is," said Brey of Grant. "He's an exceptional talent who's still growing up, and I'm thrilled with his improvement and his development. He was going for the jugular tonight."

Brey was pretty frisky himself Wednesday night, picking up a technical about midway through the first half when he disagreed with a touch-foul call by veteran official Pat Driscoll.

"I don't get many; I think I've had four or five in 12 years," said Brey of the technical. "I thought maybe that wasn't the greatest of calls in a physical game. Did it get our guys going a little? Maybe. It got our building going. Maybe it was helpful from that standpoint."

After the technical, Notre Dame out-scored West Virginia the rest of the way, 60-27. Brey has had the Midas touch during the nine-game winning streak.

Now 12-3 in the league, the Irish took one more step toward assuring themselves a double bye in the Big East tournament. A victory Saturday against St. John's in Madison Square Garden and one of two against Georgetown on the road and Providence at home would do it. Brey has the perfect motivation for his players, just as he did Wednesday night when the general feeling was that West Virginia had the emotional edge after having fallen to the Irish two weeks earlier and in desperate need of a victory.

"I'm really proud of our group. We really went after it," Brey said. "I still think we're getting better. Even during the tough times of November and December, we talked about getting better for New York City (for) the Big East tournament. We still can get better, I believe."

Brey's message for St. John's Saturday? "Playing well on that floor because we'll be back there in two weeks to try to win a (Big East) championship," said Brey, whose squad lost by 18 to the Red Storm last January in MSG. "We need to play well in the Garden because we'll be back in two weeks."

Since that loss, the Irish have won 24 of 28 games against Big East competition.

"It's impressive to have nine wins (overall) in the Big East, let alone rattling off nine in a row," offered Jack Cooley. "It's really unbelievable. It's never been done here before, and for us to be the team to do it is unreal."

Oh, it's real, all right, and still getting better.






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