After two months of playing mostly lightweight opponents and two weeks off for Christmas break, No. 21 Notre Dame is ready to begin its quest of trying to win its first Big East title before departing for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Coach Mike Brey and his Irish players set that goal in March after they squandered a 10-point lead midway through the second half and lost 67-63 to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament - a goal that was set well before they found out they would be leaving the Big East in the next season or two. Winning the league title has been their goal ever since, and they're happy to be finally starting their 18th season in the league.
"I think collectively our group's antenna has risen," Brey said. "They've been waiting for this, to play through this league schedule. I think the attention to detail has just naturally gone up."
The Irish (12-1), who have won 10 straight, are among three Big East teams who have yet to play a league game.
"We're just ready to get started," guard Eric Atkins said.
The Irish, who were picked by the league coaches to finish third, open the Big East season noon Saturday against Seton Hall (12-2, 1-0 Big East), a team that was picked to finish 14th in the 15-team league. They then play Monday at No. 14 Cincinnati (13-1, 1-0), where the Irish have lost three straight.
Atkins said it is important the Irish set the tone for the league season immediately against Seton Hall.
"We need to start strong to even think about winning the Big East being one of our goals," he said.
A win Saturday over the Pirates would give Brey his second longest winning streak at Notre Dame, a game shy of the 12-game winning streak set by the 2006-07 team. Brey said because the Irish return five starters from last year's 22-12 team, he hasn't had to remind the players about the goal set last spring.
"One of the great strengths of this group is it has ownership of itself," he said.
But Brey did meet with some players individually on Wednesday to let them know that as well as the Irish have played, with their only loss coming in overtime against Saint Joseph's in New York, they need to be even better in league play.
"Just to set the tone of, we need more now," Brey said.
Brey wasn't always pleased with the play of guard Jerian Grant, who came off the bench against Kennesaw State after a lackadaisical performance against IPFW.
"I was upset with him that week because maybe he wasn't as engaged. But he has been a big-game guy for us and every game on the schedule is big now. We've got 18 games on the schedule now and they're all big," he said.
Brey also said Jack Cooley, who is leading the Irish with 15.2 points and 11.3 rebounds a game, is back at full strength after missing several practices with an illness.
The Irish started the season ranked No. 22, fell out of the rankings after their loss, and jumped back to No. 22 after beating then-No. 8 Kentucky. But that victory looks a lot less impressive now that the Wildcats are unranked at 9-4, and Notre Dame doesn't have any other quality wins. That explains why it hasn't moved up much in the poll during its winning streak.
"At this point we don't care that much because we know we'll move up pretty quickly if we do what we have to do in the Big East," Atkins said.
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