Four years ago, riding a 45-game home win streak, Notre Dame basketball was in the spotlight as ESPN’s College GameDay came to town to feature the 19th-ranked Fighting Irish against No. 3 Connecticut.
The spotlight shined predominately on Jim Calhoun and his Huskies, who claimed a 69-61 victory. It was the third loss in what would be a seven-game slide as a veteran Notre Dame unit failed to capitalize on the momentum of a 25-8 season in 2007-08.
Notre Dame gets another shot on the big stage Saturday night when the No. 25-ranked Irish host No. 11/12 Louisville at 9 p.m. ET. Irish head coach Mike Brey promises a different approach from the one taken four seasons ago.
“I have taken a whole new outlook,” said an enthusiastic Brey. “The circus is coming to town, and I’ve got my cotton candy. I am going to have fun. We are going to enjoy it. I am going to be with the students. Someone said there’s a game in there at nine o’clock. I’ll get to that later.”
Brey tried to shield his players from the hoopla on Jan. 24, 2009, even giving consideration to taking his team to Chicago the night before so as to stay away from the “noise” that comes with the GameDay extravaganza.
This time, although still measured with his players who need their energy for later in the evening, Brey is going to bask in it.
“(Three) days ago, (ND sports information director) Bernie (Cafarelli) said, ‘Was that too much?’ And I said, ‘Bring it all on. We’re going to have fun with it. We’re going to enjoy it and be loose and play.’ We’ll see if that works.”
Brey was preaching playing loose and with “nothing to lose” last weekend after the Irish defeated DePaul in Chicago and prepared for a trip to Syracuse, where the Orange owned a 35-game win streak in the Carrier Dome. Instead, the Irish had turned the basketball over five times by the first TV timeout, rallied to get back into the game, but eventually fizzled behind a poor shooting effort in a 63-47 loss.
Loose remains the word for Brey, who emphasized that the Irish are just three victories away (out of eight remaining games) from earning a 9-9 split in conference play. A .500 record in conference play might be good enough for the Irish to land an NCAA tournament bid considering the difficulty of their schedule.
“I would like to see us play that way the rest of the season and just kind of go for it,” Brey said. “If we get into a thing of ‘Oh my God,’ then you play tight, you play not to lose, and coming from me, that’s a big key here down the stretch. Just go for it.
“When you have six league wins and you get in the vicinity of nine league wins, which is probably going to put you in pretty good shape, I think you’re more apt to be that way. That’s a key for us.”
Eighteen of Notre Dame’s 31 games this year are against teams currently in the NCAA’s top 100 RPI rating, including two games against No. 7 Louisville. Upcoming games, in addition to the pair against the Cardinals, include a trip to RPI No. 16 Marquette, a home tilt with No. 25 Cincinnati, a visit to No. 33 Pittsburgh, a home game against No. 57 St. John’s, and a trip to the Northeast to take on No. 97 Providence.
Notre Dame is 6-5 versus teams currently in the top 100 RPI.
For now, however, the focus is on a relaxed yet energetic performance against Louisville Saturday night.
“I told them on Tuesday, ‘Fellas, there’s going to be a lot of stuff going on. We’re going to embrace it and have fun with it,’” Brey said. “Saturday morning, they’ll have the team out there. We’re all going to do our thing.
“We’ll have time to come back at four o’clock, get our shootaround and we’ll just play. I think that gives us the best chance. I’ve experienced (College GameDay) and lost and watched other teams go through it. You’ve just got to embrace it.”
Notre Dame is the only school in the country to have received a visit from ESPN’s College GameDay this school year in both football and basketball. The football crew was in town for the Oct. 13 game against Stanford.
This marks the 10th time College GameDay will be on the Notre Dame campus.