Notre Dame Men's Basketball: Irish look to loosen up in road test
Notre Dame Fighting Irish guard Ben Hansbrough (23) shoots the ball against Providence Friars forward Kadeem Batts (10) during the second half at The Dunkin' Donuts Center. Notre Dame defeated Providence 94-93. (Mark L. Bauer/U.S. PRESSWIRE)
It's difficult to enjoy the ride if you hold on too tight.
When the No. 8 Irish awake Saturday in their downtown Hartford hotel, they will be 40 minutes of work away from perhaps winning the most important league game in school history.
At 24-5 overall and 13-4 in the Big East, Notre Dame has a chance at its first league championship during a 16-year affiliation with what has annually become the nation's toughest and most trying conference.
A Notre Dame win and a Pittsburgh loss to Villanova means Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, each at 14-4, would share the league title. Notre Dame would earn the No. 1 seed in next week's Big East Championship based on its regular-season victory over Pittsburgh in the lone meeting between the teams this season.
Seeing one really big dream come true will not be possible unless Notre Dame can beat No. 16 Connecticut (21-8, 9-8) in a place – Gampel Pavilion – where it has never won.
All of it will be an exercise in futility — and frustration — if the Irish allow the magnitude of the moment to permeate their thoughts on the bus ride out to another hostile road atmosphere.
There is no reference point for the Irish, who insist they don't need one.
"There's no need to play tight," said senior captain Ben Hansbrough. "With all that's on the line, how do you not go in there and play your heart out?
"That's when you should play your best."
With no worries.
"I want us loose and going for it," said coach Mike Brey. "Matter of fact, I want us loose and going for it the rest of the way."
That attitude first surfaced on the day of the Old Spice Classic tournament championship at Walt Disney World over Thanksgiving weekend. The Irish refused to let the pressure of three games in four days get to them before accomplishing one of their early-season goals — winning a championship.
Then with a chance to go undefeated at home Monday for the third time in five seasons, the Irish again were an easy-going group. They even participated in a game of "knockout" during their game day shoot-around.
If that's what it takes to repeat the efficient effort Notre Dame unleashed against Villanova, Brey said he'd play the shooting game every day this month.
"Right before a game, we're pretty good about giving each other a hard time," said senior Scott Martin. "Then when it's game time, we focus in pretty well."
Being loose aside, serious business remains. Notre Dame, which can finish no lower in the league than second place, enters Saturday a respectable 4-4 on the road in league play, and looks to jump above the .500 mark away from home for the first time since 2008. It would be the sixth time in Brey's 11-year tenure that the Irish have been at the break-even mark or better in league play outside of Indiana.
But this league road record is a bit deceiving. Of the four wins, only one — the Jan. 24 upset of Pittsburgh — was in as bustling a building as the Irish will experience Saturday. The other three — at DePaul, at South Florida and at Providence — unfolded in front of indifferent crowds or had such few fans in the stands that the place eventually became a pro-Irish event.
None of those scenarios will surface during Connecticut's Senior Day. The last time Notre Dame played in such an atmosphere — two weeks ago to the day — its seven-game league win streak fizzled during a 14-point meltdown at West Virginia.