The Bracket Big Board takes into consideration past returns, current performance and expected future gains in determining who should be included among the field of 68 (31 automatic and 37 at-large bids). Essentially, the Bracket Big Board is a cheat sheet designed for amateur bracketologists if they were filling out a Tourney Pick 'Em '12 entry today. The Triple-B, the second-most accurate bracket predictor among macro-sites over the past four years, is updated every Monday until the dance card is unveiled March 11.
When teams are faced with extreme adversity one of two outcomes usually occur: 1) Assume the fetal position and fold or 2) Grin, bear and fight through it with every ounce you got.
Notre Dame, fitting given the school's pugilistic nickname, chose the latter course.
Entering the season the Fighting Irish were projected to flirt with the at-large fringe. Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough along with key contributors Carleton Scott and Tyron Nash, a group that comprised 51.9-percent of the club's offensive last year, moved on to greener pastures. Even with All-conference forward Tim Abromaitis and senior guard Scott Martin returning, the Irish were largely young, unproven and destined to rough it with perennial dungeon dwellers DePaul, South Florida and Rutgers.
Barely into the season, it got worse, much worse.
During a late November practice, Abromaitis, the team's offensive cog and general leader, planted wrong on a cut, shredded his right anterior cruciate ligament and ended his season. Presumably, the Golden Dome's was toast too. Luck certainly wasn't on its side. Dejected by the massive blow, Mike Brey was very pessimistic about what the future would hold. From the South Bend Tribune:
Getting back to the NCAA tournament for an eighth time in 12 seasons in South Bend was not much of a reality. Brey wondered if his team, then 7-5, had the fight and might to be good enough just to qualify for postseason.
"From the Gonzaga-Indiana time, looking up at the rest of the league, you've got no hope," Brey admitted late Saturday afternoon. "The little step was, 'Can we get a little bit better to get to the NIT?'
Over the next several weeks, the Irish, understandably shaken from the crippling loss, struggled to cope. They were pummeled by Gonzaga on the road and dropped pivotal games against Maryland and Indiana on neutral floors. Standing at 7-5 in mid-December, ND's best case scenario was to simply remain competitive through another murderous Big East slate.
Boy, did it ever.
After a 3-3 start in league play, the Irish have thrown one devastating jab after another, socking the likes of Syracuse, Connecticut, Marquette and West Virginia. Only two games out of first, Mike Brey is now talking tourney, an absurd delusion just weeks ago. From the Chicago Tribune:
"We have one heck of a strong resume," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "It's exciting to think about, that that's possible for this team, with where we were. Our guys are very focused on showing up on Selection Sunday. And God bless 'em, they should be."
What's more wacky? Notre Dame is in line to sew up a two-round bye in the Big East tournament. Even wackier, looking at its rather friendly remaining schedule, a regular season championship is not out of the realm of possibility. A road trip to Georgetown Feb. 27 is daunting, but it has winnable matchups against Rutgers, Villanova, St. John's, Providence and West Virginia, a squad it defeated by four in Morgantown Feb. 8. If the Irish take care of business, Brey not only deserves National Coach of the Year honors, he deserves to be crowned Coach of the Millennium.
Brey wasn't short on talented players, but with little experience outside Martin and junior Jack Cooley, expectations were appropriately tempered. Still, the savvy coach, as usual, has maximized the potential of his young players. Sophomore guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant have combined for 25.6 points and 8.3 assists per game. Four-starred frosh Pat Connaughton has also elevated his game in pivotal moments, evidenced in his sensational 23-11-3 performance against Marquette. And the bench has also chipped in. Alex Dragicevich and Tom Knight have logged quality minutes.
However, the primary reason for the Irish's remarkable turnaround is defense, an uncharacteristic catalyst for a Brey-coached team.
According to KenPom.com, Notre Dame has not ranked inside the top-40 in defensive efficiency once since 2003. It's highest mark during that span: No. 42 when it went 25-8 in '07-'08. Suffice it to say, contesting shots has rarely been an Irish strong suit. But without Abromaitis, Connaughton and company were forced to up the ante with their backs to the basket.
It's definitely worked.
Over their current six-game win streak the Irish have held opponents to just 0.93 points per possession, well below the 1.01 national average. That inflexibility combined with its cautiousness with the basketball (ND ranks ninth nationally in offensive turnover percentage) has Notre Dame on the upswing. If it can continue to exude grit on defense down the homestretch, the Mock Turtleneck could clinch a Sweet 16 berth for the first time since 2003.
Through supreme toughness, sheer will and excellent defense, the Big East's most surprising story has turned an unlucky setback into success.
Here are the movers and shakers on this week's Triple-B:
*For games played through Sunday, February 12
*RPI data provided by Rivals
*T50 = Record versus RPI top-50
*BL = Bad losses (dropped games to opponents with a 100+ RPI)
*Orange teams are rising, blue falling
On the Bubble: Cincinnati (17-8), Minnesota (17-8), Alabama (16-8), Arkansas (17-8), Colorado St. (15-8), Wyoming (18-6), Oregon (18-7), St. Joe's (16-10), Pittsburgh (15-11)
Dropped Out: Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Colorado St., George Mason
Conference Breakdown: American East (1), ACC (5), Atlantic Sun (1), Atlantic 10 (3), Big 12 (6), Big East (8), Big Sky (1), Big South (1), Big Ten (8), Big West (1), Colonial (1), Conference USA (2), Horizon (1), Ivy (1), Metro (1), Mid-American (1), Mid-Eastern (1), Missouri Valley (2), Mountain West (3), Northeast (1), Ohio Valley (1), Pac-12 (3), Patriot (1), SEC (4), Southern (1), Southland (1), SWAC (1), Summit (1), Sun Belt (1), West Coast (3), WAC (1)
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