By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
There came a time, in the middle of what has become a magical season for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, when the sky seemed to be caving in upon them.
After they had won 14 of their first 16 games, the only losses being at Kentucky and at Syracuse, they found themselves being kicked in the teeth on the Big East road by Marquette and St. John’s.
The losses to a pair of teams not in the elite of the nation’s most elite conference — the first by 22 points and the second by 18 — left everyone who knows anything about the Irish shaking their heads, saying “same old Notre Dame,” can’t win away from home, can’t really contend in the Big East.
The only people who weren’t shaken up by the back-to-back beatings were the men who resided within the Notre Dame locker room, a veteran, experienced group.
“You understand in this league you are going to have to take some blows and how do you respond,” coach Mike Brey, said. “Everyone in the league has gone through their rough stuff. The ones that can respond are the ones that get the NCAA Tournament bid. The ones that don’t respond fall by the wayside.”
Notre Dame responded spectacularly and has not lost since, coming into the Coliseum to play a 1 p.m. game Saturday against a West Virginia University team that is faced with the same kind of dilemma.
The Irish are sporting a 21-4 record and a 10-3 mark in the Big East, ranked No. 7/8 in the country, and they come across a West Virginia team that is spiraling seemingly out of control in the opposite direction.
West Virginia has lost three of its last four, leaving the Mountaineers at 16-9 and 7-6 in the conference and that is not lost on Brey at all.
“I don’t know that we need a new crusade,” Brey said, “but we realize we are playing a team with its back against the wall.”
Certainly West Virginia is desperate for answers. The Mountaineers are without any offense at all, having problems scoring 60 points in a game.
“We haven’t played badly,” coach Bob Huggins said. “We just haven’t shot well.”
With a difficult schedule ahead, five games against Notre Dame, at Pittsburgh, at Rutgers, then home for Connecticut and Louisville, nothing is assured the Mountaineers, although Brey indicated on his weekly conference call that he believes WVU is a shoo-in for the NCAA bid.
“They are an easy NCAA Tournament team,” Brey said. “They are going to be in with strength of schedule.”
One man’s opinion, but if you are going to make any kind of reservations for the NCAAs right now, make sure they are refundable.
Notre Dame expects a tough time in the Coliseum, especially walking into one of the fiercest atmospheres in college basketball.
“Top three,” said Brey, when asked about the Coliseum scene. “They whip it up. They’ll be ready for us. There’s a reunion of sorts going on. Maybe Jerry West will run out and go in the layup line with the team. I have a feeling they’ll be game ready.”
The way the Mountaineers have been shooting of late, West would be welcome, that is for certain.
This is a team that has shot 39 percent in its last three losses.
“They are trying to find who they are offensively,” Brey said, forgetting that we are now in the home stretch of the season, a bit late for a team to shape its identity. “They’ve missed some guys, had some suspensions and injuries. Considering what they’ve been through, they’ve done pretty good.
“I have a lot of respect for John Flowers,” Brey continued, turning to the WVU personnel and its senior leader and shot blocker. “I respect Kevin Jones, and there’s not a tougher guy in the league than Joe Mazzulla. Truck Bryant, he beat us in the Garden. Then there’s Casey Mitchell, he’s been suspended some, but he got 23 the other night and he can get 30 at the drop of a hat. They also isolate the big guy (Deniz Kilicli) and he makes tough shots.”
The fact that WVU is missing shots worries Brey, in a strange way.
“Usually, when a team is not shooting well they know they better run and get the misses,” he said.
He has a tape where Flowers misses a jumper from the corner and four Mountaineers are battling under the basket for the rebound.
“My theme is going to be that’s what this game will come down to,” Brey said, meaning a physical battle.
And while the Irish seem to have their NCAA bid clinched, they have some important unfulfilled goals.
“We’re trying to win the regular-season championship,” Brey said.
As for WVU, it is just trying to get through the regular season and hopes to make a postseason run.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.