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January 25, 2013

From title to tourney talk

It happens so quickly in basketball conference play. On top of the world one day, clinging to the hope of winning a road game and keeping your head above water the next.

Mike Brey stated as far as back as last summer that the 2012-13 Fighting Irish had a legitimate shot at winning the Big East regular season - and more.

“We know we can be a player for the Big East championship this year,” said Brey in June. “We’re talking about a Big East championship and getting back to the Final Four. Those are really things this program can legitimately talk about.”

What the Irish are talking about these days has nothing to do with claiming the Big East regular-season championship or claiming a spot in the Final Four for the first time in 35 years. If there is any talk about the crown, it’s about tabling that conversation, if not letting it die completely.

Notre Dame has lost three of its last four, including two in a row at home, and now they’ll head to Tampa to take on South Florida without captain Scott Martin, who has been shut down at least for the next two weeks as he allows his ailing left knee to recuperate.

“I haven’t said, ‘We’re taking the regular-season title goal off the board,’” Brey said. “I don’t want to say that right now. But I think I’m pretty realistic about this league and where you’re at and who you are and how you get a bid.

“We need to reinvent ourselves a little bit this week before we play again. I don’t want them to think that all is lost getting a tournament bid.”

Brey often is criticized for being so “real” when it comes to talking reality. There is the notion that Brey doesn’t set the bar high enough, that he’s constantly lowering the standards and expectations when the going gets tough on the Irish.

The fact is no Big East team has won the regular-season title with more than three losses since 1996-97 - Notre Dame’s second year in the league - when they were still in the old division format. That season, Villanova won one division with six losses and Georgetown won the other with seven.

Since then, the standard has been three Big East losses to win the league. Last year, Syracuse went 17-1 to win the conference, and they’re off to a 6-0 start this season.

In other words, the Irish likely would have to win all 12 of their remaining regular-season games to have a shot at winning the Big East, and even then, Syracuse isn’t likely to lose two games in addition to falling to Notre Dame in Syracuse on Feb. 4.

 “On days like this, you say, ‘Where do I sign up for a nine- or a 10-seed?’” Brey said. “Or send me to Dayton and I will go and we’ll get there early. That’s the reality of where we’re at.”

Brey is not as pessimistic as it may sound. Although he knows his team needs to come up with a different identity with Martin out, the Irish already have done decent work when it comes to building a résumé.

“We are 6-4 against the top 100 of the RPI and we’re 3-2 against the top 50,” Brey said. “Our base is pretty good. We have six games left against the top 20 of the RPI, and we don’t have to go 6-0. So we’ve got stuff to get one of those (bids).

“There are almost no bad losses in our league. If you’re losing to a top 100 RPI team…and I’m not talking about getting a five-seed or a four-seed or a three-seed. I’m talking about getting access. So you can absorb some of that and try to figure out a way to get in the thing.”

Based upon the Ratings Percentage Index when the week began, the Irish have victories over No. 24 Cincinnati, No. 40 Brigham Young, No. 53 Rutgers, No. 64 Kentucky and No. 84 Seton Hall. They’ve lost to No. 29 Connecticut, No. 43 Georgetown, No. 56 St. John’s and No. 100 St. Joseph’s.

Games remain with No. 9 Syracuse, No. 12 Louisville (twice), No. 20 Marquette, No. 24 Cincinnati, No. 50 Pittsburgh, No. 56 St. John’s, No. 59 Villanova and No. 80 South Florida. Five of those nine games are on the road.

“Look at the standings,” said Brey, whose Irish were No. 55 in the RPI standings when the week began. “We have five teams at 3-3, and the 2-3 (team) - Connecticut -- has the highest RPI. Their RPI is 28 and the rest of us are 45-to-70.

“That’s good math right now when you’re looking at 9-9, 10-8. That’s good math when you’re looking at, ‘How do we get in this thing? How do we get access? How do we survive it?’”

The key to victory in Tampa Saturday, according to Brey, is to get his team to play without the shackles that the pressure to win binds a team.

“You can’t dwell too much on all these things,” Brey said. “You’re 3-3 in the league. You’re in a position to still earn a bid. How can we get flowing and (play like we’ve) got nothing to lose? I’m trying to get us in that frame of mind for Saturday instead of, ‘Oh my God!’

“If we play like that, we’re going to play tight. Let’s just play. Georgetown played like that the other night (against Notre Dame). Villanova (in its win over Louisville) played like that (Tuesday) night.

“Let’s just play and compete. Let’s not overanalyze this thing. You’ve got a chance to get enough to get in this dang tournament.”

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