Led by the returning Big East player of the year and a strong core from last season’s surprising team, Notre Dame finds itself in an unfamiliar position - ranked in the preseason top 10 for the first time in 28 years.
The ninth-ranked Irish look to get off to a strong start to 2008-09 and match a school record with their 38th straight win at the Joyce Center on Sunday against South Carolina-Upstate.
Notre Dame has thrived the past two seasons in an underdog role, having been picked to finish 11th in the Big East two years ago and ninth last season, but now it faces the challenge of playing as favorites.
The Irish, who finished fourth in the conference in 2006-07 and tied for second last year, are in the preseason top 10 for the first time since being No. 10 in 1980, and were picked to finish fourth in the competitive Big East.
“I think this team is smart enough to know that regardless of where we’re picked or the kind of hype that surrounds the team, we still have to go out and work and achieve everything and earn everything,” said Zach Hillesland, 6-foot-9 senior forward.
Hillesland is one of 11 players returning from last season’s team that went 25-8, led the Big East in scoring (79.0 points per game) and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
League player of the year Luke Harangody, the second player to lead the Big East in scoring (23.3) and rebounding (11.3) in the same season, will lead Notre Dame in the paint again, while the Irish will count on Kyle McAlarney from the outside.
McAlarney, who along with Harangody was a first-team All-Big East selection last year, was second on the team in scoring (15.1 ppg) and set a school record with 108 3-pointers. He’s joined in the backcourt by Tory Jackson, who averaged 8.0 points and a league-high 5.8 assists - the second straight season he led the Big East in that category.
“I’m happy with the momentum of our program and how we’re out there nationally,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “There’s a buzz about us. That’s a good thing.”
Notre Dame has won all eight season openers under Brey, and is 34-6 all-time in openers at the Joyce Center.
The Irish have also won 37 straight games overall in South Bend since an 80-72 loss to Marquette on March 4, 2006. In doing so, Notre Dame has become the only school in Big East history to finish undefeated at home in consecutive seasons.
A win for the Irish against South Carolina-Upstate (0-1) would match the school-record 38-game home winning streak, set from 1943-48 at Notre Dame Fieldhouse.
South Carolina-Upstate, a school from the Atlantic Sun Conference, began its second season as a Division I program with a 72-48 loss to Georgia on Friday.
Freshman Carter Cook scored a team-high 11 points for the Spartans, who turned the ball over 29 times.
Notre Dame won’t be the only major-conference opponent this season for South Carolina-Upstate, which visits South Carolina on Nov. 22, Boston College on Dec. 14 and No. 10 Gonzaga on March 3.
“The schedule that we play is prohibitive in terms of winning games against Notre Dame and Gonzaga and SEC teams,” coach Eddie Payne said.
“It’s a function of a second-year Division I program. Our approach is we understand all this and we’re going to make it challenging and expose our kids to a high level of basketball. … We’ll have a lot of growth pains, but the philosophy behind it is hopefully that will help our team mature perhaps a bit faster.”
The Irish won their eight non-conference home games last season by an average of 24.0 points. They have never faced the Spartans.