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February 4, 2013

ND climbs back in title hunt

The date was Jan. 21, 2013. Fourteen days ago.

Notre Dame had just lost for the third time in four days, and this time - at home against Georgetown - it wasn’t really close.

“That was a thorough beating,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey following Notre Dame’s 63-47 loss to the Hoyas. “It’s a hard league. We’re fortunate it only counted as one loss.”

Two weeks prior to the loss to Georgetown, the Irish upset Cincinnati on the road to rise to 2-0. Visions of a run at the Big East regular-season crown were visible, tangent. Now, just two weeks later, it appeared time for Notre Dame to readjust its objectives.

“I wonder if we need to start thinking about, ‘That may not be realistic, fellas. We may not be able to get that,’” said Brey of the pre-season goal of winning the Big East title.

“I don’t want to say that now because mathematically there are still a lot of games left. But from my frame of mind…(it’s) can we scratch out getting a bid.

“I threw (a Big East championship) out there and put that on us and was very public about it. (But) when you’re looking at 3-3 and the way we’re playing, we’re a long way from that.”

Notre Dame still is a long way from winning the Big East crown. But as the second half of the conference slate begins tonight in Syracuse, Notre Dame finds itself in what would have been considered nearly unfathomable territory just two weeks ago.

Since the Irish fell to .500 in league play 14 days ago, Louisville - which was ranked No. 1 in the country at the time - has lost three times (Syracuse, at Villanova, at Georgetown) while Syracuse, also undefeated at the time, has lost twice (at Villanova, at Pittsburgh).

Coupled with Marquette’s loss at Cincinnati on Jan. 19 and at Louisville on Super Bowl Sunday, the Irish suddenly find themselves just one game back of first place in the loss column. Notre Dame currently sits in a three-way tie for third with the Bearcats, the Cardinals and Georgetown.

Of course, Notre Dame’s standing is a temporary condition when you consider they’ll be playing an angry Syracuse team in the Carrier Dome coming off back-to-back road losses, followed by a home game against Louisville, which has now responded to its three-game losing streak with a hard-fought home victory over Pittsburgh and a rout of Marquette.

But once again, the Irish are holding their own on the road, as they did each of the two previous seasons. Notre Dame was able to finish third in the Big East last year at 13-5 and second in the conference in 2010-11 at 14-4 thanks to its dominance on their home floor and the ability to claim big victories on the road.

In fact, Notre Dame has lost more often at Purcell Pavilion this year than they have away from home. The Irish have a 66-60 victory at Cincinnati, a 73-65 win at South Florida, and a 79-71 overtime victory over DePaul in Allstate Arena this past Saturday. (Their only road loss in the Big East was in Madison Square Garden against St. John’s.)

In the two previous seasons, the Irish were 17-1 at home - with its only loss coming to Connecticut last season -- and 10-8 on the road (5-4 both seasons).

In 2010-11 and 2011-12, the Irish claimed victories on the road against South Florida, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence, Pittsburgh, Louisville, West Virginia, Villanova and Connecticut twice.

Heading into Monday night’s class with Syracuse, no one in the Big East has a better road record than Notre Dame’s 3-1 mark. Cincinnati is the only other Big East team that has been able to match Notre Dame’s .750 winning percentage on the road. Pittsburgh, St. John’s and Syracuse all are 3-2 on the road.

Of course, the early Big East schedule has favored the Irish. Two of their three road wins have come against of the Nos. 14 and 15 teams in the league - DePaul and South Florida. Following Saturday’s win over the Blue Demons, Brey said the Irish have the eighth most difficult schedule in the country remaining. Not only do they have home games against Louisville, Cincinnati and St. John’s, but they’re at Syracuse tonight, Providence on Feb. 16, Pittsburgh on Feb. 18, Marquette on March 2, and Louisville on March 5.

Notre Dame’s remaining five road games are against teams that are a combined 27-18 (.600) in Big East play. Exclude Providence from that mix and the other four are a combined 24-11 (.685).

“I know what’s coming in February,” said Brey following the win over DePaul. “We’ve got murderer’s row.”

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