Irish grow up fast, emerge as contender

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Its best player out for the season, its morale deflated by a 20-point loss at Gonzaga in its first road test, a Notre Dame team that flopped against every name opponent it faced through the season's first month had a hard time envisioning itself as a player in the Big East with conference play quickly approaching.

"Maybe deep, deep down, but I mean, deep in there," Irish forward Jack Cooley confessed Saturday. "We just always gotta keep faith and just see what was gonna happen. We knew something had to change and hoped something clicked, and it did. It really did."

The transformation of Notre Dame from Big East afterthought to conference contender was never on display more than in its 76-59 thrashing of Marquette at the Joyce Center, the Irish's fourth straight win ending the Golden Eagles' seven-game winning streak.

The Irish entered Big East play a little more than a month ago with an 8-5 record, three double-digit losses and no Tim Abromaitis, a preseason all-conference pick who tore the ACL in his right knee in late November. Flash forward to the first weekend of February and here they are, 15-8 overall, 7-3 in conference play and just a half-game behind Georgetown and Marquette for second place in the Big East.

Less than three months after Mike Brey wondered if his players could improve enough "in the back of my mind, to get to the NIT," the 12th-year coach has not shied away from double-bye talk in next month's Big East tournament.

"I mentioned it to them a little bit as far as standings and what that means, and certainly that's something we're staring at, man. That's been good to us," Brey said, adding, "Obviously if you finish in the top four, you're in. You're an NCAA tournament team. We got seven wins. We got a lot of good wins in that left column in the league, as far as an NCAA-tournament résumé."

Among them: A Jan. 7 double-overtime win at then-No. 10 Louisville, a rout of then-undefeated and No. 1 Syracuse two weeks later and a strenuous victory at then-No. 19 Connecticut last Sunday.

Then came Saturday's performance in a contest that -- for the first 20 minutes, at least -- seemed destined to be another burn-it-out, tempo-turning test of mental endurance against a far more athletic squad.

The more eager Irish, however, broke a 30-26 game wide open in the second half.

They jacked up 3s from all corners, hitting 8-of-13 in the second half and forcing Marquette coach Buzz Williams to call timeout after timeout -- three in a 2-minute, 54-second stretch late in the second half.

No matter. Notre Dame utilized an 18-2 run during a nearly six-minute stretch, including 14 unanswered points to effectively put the game away.

"I thought [the score] was always teetering back and forth early in the second half," Williams said. "I then tried to keep it close by calling [a lot] of timeouts. I was just trying to keep it in contention, but they just continued to beat us off the bounce. We were scrambling around and that's why they had 22 assists. A lot of those 28 makes were uncontested shots. Eleven of the 23 shots were 3s, so that tells you they force rotation a lot."

Indeed, Brey said afterward he thinks he fields the best passing team in the country. He said sophomore off-guard Jerian Grant (12 points, eight assists) is the fastest player in the Big East. And, like everyone else, he lavished praise on the maturity of Pat Connaughton, whose 95-mph heat on the baseball diamond will remain the sidebar if he continues to deliver like he did on Saturday.

The 6-foot-5 Connaughton had game highs of 23 points and 11 rebounds, connecting on 9-of-12 field goal attempts and shooting 5-for-8 from downtown.

His monster rejection of Junior Cadougan closed the first half, and his slam with less than two minutes in the game punctuated the rookie's most complete performance.

"Anybody that stands on that mound, he stands on that mound, he's got the game on his shoulders -- there's a psyche there that maybe other freshmen can't have," Brey said of Connaughton. "He's had the game on his backside many, many times. So lining up a 3 to put you up six, or make big free throws, I think that's where it converts over. But people are still surprised, our opponents in the league, how athletic he is. The way he rebounded today in there, he blocked some shots, he was just flying all over the place."

The scene at the final horn hardly resembled that of Notre Dame's last game here, the court-storming stunner over Syracuse two weeks ago. Brey and his players simply walked to the student section, exchanging several high-fives before heading back to their locker room, a national ranking likely awaiting them Monday.

Those NIT hopes Brey envisioned not too long ago are now a distant memory, a carrot he knew better than to verbally share with his young team. Now, the self-proclaimed "loosest coach in America," the three- and potentially four-time conference coach of the year, will have to ready a young group that has grown faster than he expected, one he said he can refer to as "men" the next time they gather.

"I'll tell you one thing, we got a heck of a strong résumé," Brey said. "Our résumé is very strong with what we've done. And it's exciting to think about, that that's possible for this team after where we were. But I think our guys are very focused on showing up on Selection Sunday. And God bless them, they should be. Because they have put us in this position with their kind of focus and business-like approach, to go get it."