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December 31, 2008

Irish ready for Big East gauntlet

It's not like the No. 7-ranked Fighting Irish (9-2), who open Big East play Wednesday night at DePaul, are preparing for failure. The competitive nature of the four seniors and three juniors who have been through the conference wars would never allow such an attitude.

But by the same token, you better be ready to get knocked off your horse, otherwise you're going to have a difficult time getting back in the saddle again.

"It's all about managing the highs and lows of a season," said senior forward Zach Hillesland. "(Mike Brey) put a quote on our locker the other day about being able to manage when the highs come and when the lows come, and how to remain on an even keel when you go through some tough times and when you go through good times.

"It's all about staying your course, coming out and playing, and knowing that anything can happen in this league. Even if you drop a game here or there, it's a long season and you have plenty of opportunities to build your conference prestige."

Oh, there will be no shortage of opportunities to build a strong resume. The Irish play current No. 2 Connecticut twice. They play No. 3 Pittsburgh on the road. They play No. 11 Georgetown, which knocked off UConn in Storrs Monday night. They play No. 13 Syracuse on the road. They play No. 15 Villanova. They play No. 18 Louisville twice. They play Marquette, which currently is 27th in the AP voting.

Just to keep them on their toes, they also play rival DePaul and St. John's on the road-beginning with the Blue Demons tonight-as well as Cincinnati, West Virginia and Providence away from the Joyce Center, where the Irish currently hold a 43-game winning streak.

"There are going to be road bumps, and you have to understand that," said junior All-American Luke Harangody, who begins his quest to defend his Big East player of the year honors.

"But we're going into every game expecting to win. The big thing is you've got to win (at home) and steal a few road games along the way. Whether you're playing Seton Hall or Connecticut, it's going to be the same thing."

Brey has gone so far as to tell the team that they likely won't win 14 out of 18 Big East games, as the Irish did last season to tie for second in the conference.

"You've heard me put the safety net out there with these guys," Brey said. "They want (to win) and they're hungry. But I told them in Ireland, 'Fourteen league wins may not happen, and it may not happen for anybody. So let's understand what we're in and deal with it.'

"You have to do a good job of flushing wins or losses and moving on quickly, and dealing with negative stuff or hammering guys or confronting guys so that by the time you get to practice, you've moved on.

"You've got to keep giving guys a lot of confidence as you go through the season with the way this league is. You can't dwell on breakdowns. You have to bounce back and get confident and feel good again."

Since the Irish lost back-to-back games to Baylor and Georgia Tech in mid-November of the 2007-08 season, Notre Dame has not lost two in a row. That's a driving force for the Irish.

"You don't prepare to lose, but this league is so up this year that you have to be ready for it and stick together," said senior guard Kyle McAlarney. "It's a true test of a team's character.

"Coach Brey talks about not losing two in a row. If we lose, get back to playing with intensity and a high sense of urgency."

Added Hillesland: "This team prides itself on bouncing back from losses."

The gauntlet begins New Year's Eve night when the Irish take on DePaul at All-State Arena in Rosemont, Ill., on the Chicago border. The Blue Demons have struggled out of the gate. But it's the 99th meeting between the two programs, and in the last 14 meetings, each team has won seven times.

After DePaul, the Irish travel to New York to take on St. John's Saturday, followed by a quick trip home to host Georgetown Monday.

"We know (the Big East) is even tougher than it was before," Hillesland said. "If it's not the best conference in America, it's certainly up there. There are good players on every team from top to bottom. DePaul has two of the best players in the league in Dar Tucker and Mac Koshwal. They've played us well and we want to come out of Chicago with a win."

No matter how pretty or ugly it looks.

"I'm excited for the challenge with this group," Brey said. "We know there are going to be tough nights. It's going to be a matter of how you bounce back after tough nights. That will determine who gets the bids and the byes in the Big East tournament.

"(ESPN's) Andy Katz (wrote) something about our toughest stretch (later in January, early February). Heck, I don't want to look that far ahead. I'm just trying to get out of Chicago alive."



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