By Jeff Goodman
Just about every year, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey enters the season hoping to make things interesting. He knows what he's up against in South Bend, going up against guys named Boeheim, Calhoun, Pitino, Huggins and even Dixon and Wright for a chance to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
It's not an easy task.
This year it became more than just interesting when Brey's top player and one of the elite guys in the Big East, Tim Abromaitis, went down with a season-ending injury after playing just two games.
"If you told me we'd be 5-3 in the league after Gonzaga made us look like a JV team for 40 minutes, I'd have fallen off my chair into the showers," Brey said. "But that's what's so great about our game and the length of the season."
Especially, Brey maintains, in the Big East.
"You just have to pick off a few," Brey said. "You don't have to win them all, but if you win the right ones, you can be in the discussion."
Well, Brey and the Irish have picked off Louisville and Seton Hall on the road -- and got a huge one last weekend when they handed Syracuse it's lone setback of the season.
"As proud as I was of our guys Saturday against Syracuse, I was even more proud of them against Seton Hall," Brey said. "They had every reason not to be ready to go after what happened Saturday. Fans were still talking about our Syracuse game, but we figured out a way to win on the road against an NCAA tournament team."
Now Notre Dame, the team that lost to Georgia back in late-November and also couldn't get past Maryland in early-December, has made its way into the discussion. Brey said that it's taken time to get accustomed to being without Ambromaitis and a few other guys.
"We had a dysfunctional November and December," Brey admitted. "Abro was in and out, Scott Martin (ankle) missed three weeks of practice, (Jack) missed the Maryland game and Atkins missed two games, It was crazy."
What's nuts is that we're talking about Notre Dame, even after losing the potential Big East Player of the Year, being in the mix for the NCAA tournament. Brey said he wasn't expecting to hand the keys over to his sophomore backcourt -- Atkins and Jerian Grant. However, that's exactly what he's done and the duo has responded.
"We've never had two guys with that kind of speed and athleticism in the backcourt," Brey said. "It changes us on both ends of the floor."
And Cooley is starting to become known for his play on the court instead of his facial comparison to ex-Irish star Luke Harangody. He's averaging 12.9 points and 9.8 boards in league play.
Next up for the Irish is a trip to Hartford and a matchup against UConn on Sunday. But Brey is smart enough to realize this game won't define Notre Dame's chances to make the NCAA tournament for what would be the fifth time in the past six years.
"Two years ago, we went from 6-8 in the league and a flat-out NIT team to a number six seed," Brey said. "That's what's great about our league. But on the flip side, a few years back we lost seven in a row. It can bite you quick, but you always have opportunities."