Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Irish Basketball and Hockey Teams are Polar Opposites
It's hard to believe how drastically different Notre Dame's men's basketball and hockey programs have performed relative to preseason expectations
Hockey was supposed to be a lock as a national title contender. In fact, in some polls they were ranked #1 entering the season.
Basketball, on the other hand, was left for dead entering the year with the graduation of Ben Hansbrough and Ty Nash and early departure of Carleton Scott as he (unsuccessfully) tested the NBA waters. For these reasons, the Irish were picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big East conference and nowhere near the top 25. Tim Abromaitis, seemingly the lone reason for hope, tore his ACL early in the season and it appeared the Irish wouldn't even have a shot at the NIT.
Both teams are more than halfway through their respective seasons and it is abundantly clear that games are not played on paper.
Starting with the hockey program, after starting out the year strong with series splits against Minnesota-Duluth and Ohio State the Irish appeared to be gaining momentum with a 3-2 OT win against Boston College that extending their unbeaten streak to 9 games. Shortly thereafter, though, they would fall in 4 straight contests.
With a couple wins around New Year's hope still remained for a competitive Irish squad. But a falling in a weekend sweep to Western Michigan in mid-January was a reminder that this team is far from complete. Most recently, back-to-back series losses against Ferris State (#1) and Miami (OH) helped the Irish to its current five game losing streak.
Two games remain against Michigan State before CCHA playoffs begin. It will take a small miracle, such as splitting against the Spartans and at least making it to the CCHA conference finals, for Notre Dame to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. Needless to say, head coach Jeff Jackson won't be up for any awards this year after unless he has some magic left up his sleeves.
Mike Brey has probably gotten more out of his group of players than any other NCAA Men's Basketball coach this season. After the aforementioned circumstances losing four of his top players from last season's team, there was virtually no possible way the Irish could earn an NIT bid, let alone an NCAA Tournament bid.
On the heels of an eight-game winning streak, though, Brey has his club primed for a mid-level seed in the NCAA Tournament. As of this post, Joe Lunardi's Bracketology has the Irish as a 6 seed.
The improbable streak started with an upset of then #1 Syracuse and includes home victories against Marquette, Depaul and Rutgers and road triumphs at Seton Hall, Connecticut, West Virginia and Villanova. Last Saturday, it appeared the streak would end at 7 games as the Irish trailed by 20 at the half at Villanova. Resilient as they've been throughout the season, though, they clawed back and emerged victorious in an overtime thriller.
Next up for Mike Brey's squad is Bob Huggins' West Virginia squad, who narrowly lost to the Irish two weeks ago.
Work Left To Do
I actually was hesitant to even post about the basketball team as I am quite superstitious, but they have been truly too remarkable to ignore any longer. Perhaps I've paid too much attention to hockey this year, but with so much anticipation and with the added bonus of breaking in a new facility how could they be left in the dark?
Suffice it to say, both teams have cannot lose focus during this critical stretch in their seasons. For basketball, they need to keep winning games and make a run in the Big East tournament to secure a strong seed in the NCAA Tournament. Hockey has much more work cut out if it hopes to attain its lofty pre-season goals, but if any team can do it it is one led by Jeff Jackson. After all, it was an improbable late season burst in 2008 the led Notre Dame to its first ever Frozen Four appearance.
Good luck to both squads as they look to put strong finishing touches on very divergent seasons.
Oh, and good luck to the Women's Basketball team as they look to secure their first Big East regular season title since 2001, when they shared with the Connecticut Huskies en route to the school's first ever Women's Basketball National Championship. Two words: Skylar Diggins.