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December 26, 2012

Bring on the Big East!

Exhibition games with Quincy and Cardinal Stritch are but a distant memory.

November home tilts with Evansville, Monmouth, George Washington, St. Francis (Pa.) and Chicago State are safely tucked away in the victory column.

The win over youth-laden Kentucky was taken in stride by the players if not the fans who stormed the court.

December victories over IPFW, Kennesaw State and Niagara at home, and in Indianapolis over an undermanned Purdue team, are a mere afterthought now.

Only the trip to Brooklyn where the Irish fell to St. Joseph’s and defeated Brigham Young is still referenced by the players.

The only impediment between now and the conference opener against Seton Hall on Jan. 5 -- the start of the “real” season, and perhaps Notre Dame last in the Big East -- is a bit more idle time.  The wait isn’t quite as long as the one the football team is enduring in anticipation of the Jan. 7 national title game. But it’s a gap nonetheless for Notre Dame’s veteran players who have made a run at the Big East title before and look forward to getting back in the race.

“Yeah, it’s hard when you’re in such a great league not to look forward to some of these epic games,” said Jack Cooley, Notre Dame’s leading scorer and rebounder. “Every game, every night is a huge game.”

“Very anxious,” echoed point guard Eric Atkins last Friday following Notre Dame’s impressive 89-67 victory over Niagara. “We’re just ready for Seton Hall now.”

It’s not like the Irish (12-1) squandered opportunity after opportunity during its 13-game non-conference schedule. They zipped through their 12 victories by an average margin of 18.5 points, and in their only loss - a 79-70 overtime setback to St. Joseph’s - the Irish had an eight-point lead late.

But to say the Irish have been sharp and churning up opponents all along the way wouldn’t be accurate either. The Irish spent a good portion of the non-conference schedule struggling from the free-throw line and, to a lesser extent, from three-point range before improving both numbers in recent weeks.

The defense has been more than solid (59.9 ppg.), the assist-to-turnover ratio is a sparkling 1.75-to-1 (253-to-144), and the three-point defense is rock solid for the second straight season.

“I think overall we’ve had a pretty good identity defensively, and we’ve embraced that,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “I like where we’re at offensively. Since that Chicago State-Kentucky week, we have really gotten confident offensively and kind of found our weapons. That’s something I’m really excited about working on when we get back.”

Brey acknowledged his team’s peek ahead to the Big East schedule during last week’s four games in the seven days, mainly against teams that had little-to-no chance of knocking off the Irish, particularly at Purcell Pavilion.

“Human nature does that, and we had a lot of games coming at us (last) week,” Brey said. “You keep them focused with a lot of games instead of a lot of practices, especially with an older team. That’s one of the things I’ve got to be very creative with when we get back on the 27th -- how we practice because we’ve got a long stretch here.”

The Irish return to the campus Thursday and hold the annual Christmas clinic for aspiring young basketball players Friday. The Irish will then bus to the west side of Chicago to practice for a couple of days at Attack Athletics as the Notre Dame campus remains on, for the most part, holiday lockdown. But the Irish have been gazing ahead to Big East play for quite some time.

“I think everyone looks ahead to the Big East season,” Pat Connaughton said. “It’s the premier season in the country. So it’s a matter of getting through the non-conference schedule and focusing on game-by-game-by-game.

“When you look ahead, you overlook teams and we don’t want to do that. We felt the sting at St. Joe, and that kept us in line game-by-game.”

“With the team we have this year, we’re really excited to get into Big East play,” Jerian Grant said. “We feel like we have a very good team that has a chance to do special things.”

When Cooley thinks about what lies ahead, he recalls some of the great battles in league play from a year ago when he went from relative unknown to the most improved player in the conference and second-team all-Big East.

“You look back on (last year’s Big East games) and you’re like, ‘That was a great game!’” Cooley said. “Just talking to my buds on other teams, we’re just all looking forward to playing each other. It’s great that it’s finally here.”

Brey wanted his players chomping at the bit during the holidays, looking forward to their return to campus.

“One of the things I told them was that when you’re home for the holidays, I want you to think about how the regular season in the Big East is where we’ve made a lot of money,” Brey said. “We have been really consistent there.

“We talked at the end of the spring after the loss to Xavier about chasing a regular-season championship. Well, here it is. It’s on the table now. Let’s go do it. We’ve been pretty good at doing that.”

Perhaps the Big East isn’t what it used to be with teams coming and going like a New York subway. But with the exception of West Virginia, which bolted for the Big 12 after last season, it’s the same familiar faces that have battled for the Big East crown for decades.

“It’s not going to be easy because in this league, there’s a misconception that it’s already broken up,” Brey smiled. “We still have a heckuva league. Nobody has left yet.

“So I’m excited. I like how we play the regular season. We’ve got a plan to do that, and our guys believe in it. We’ll be in it, and then there’s no turning back.”

 


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