Journeys With Jack

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jackcooleypaint.jpg's Jack Nolan takes Irish fans inside the men's basketball program ...

Hard to believe that just under a month ago the men's basketball team walked off the floor at the RAC in New Jersey with a 3-3 Big East record after losing a 65-58 decision to Rutgers. The future did not look very bright for the Irish with top-ranked Syracuse coming to town. Mike Brey decided to go all-in, telling his team that the Syracuse game was not just a big conference game, but it could turn out to be the greatest moment in his players' sporting careers.

Brey's players did what was necessary to make their coach's statement come true, and they have continued to get better every game since their upset of the nation's top-ranked team. Since my first blog posted last week the Irish have recorded two more wins to run their Big East winning streak to six games, the longest active winning streak in the conference.

During their six-game winning streak, this Irish have gone from thinking they could win every game, to knowing they could win every game, to expecting to win every game.

It is never easy to win a game at WVU Coliseum in Morgantown. Last Wednesday, the underdog Irish had led for most of the game when West Virginia went on a 13-2 run to take a 43-40 lead with 4:38 left, the first lead change of the second half. The West Virginia crowd was going nuts and the Mountaineers were clearly energized when Brey called a necessary timeout. Most of the time in a situation like this against an underdog at home, the home team proceeds to take control of the game on the way to recording a hard fought win.

But when the Irish broke their huddle, from my broadcasting vantage point - next to the visitor's bench - I did not see any concern, any fear, any stress in the eyes of the players ... just a calm confidence that they would come back and win the game. This is, of course, the message and poise that Brey tries to instill in his players during timeouts in situations like these, and I think Brey would be the first to agree that his team already had this demeanor when it came off the floor at the beginning of the timeout.

Moments later, Eric Atkins hit a three to tie the game. Jerian Grant then came up with a steal and hit a ridiculously deep three, and, after a Jack Cooley rebound, Scott Martin knocked down another three to give the Irish a six-point lead with 58 seconds left. Oh, and before these three straight three-point bombs, the Irish were just 2-for-18 from three-point land on the night.

This Irish team again found a way to make the big plays and a way to find the range to make the big shots for another big upset win on the road.

Saturday's game with DePaul marked the first time Notre Dame had been a heavy favorite in a Big East game all season. The Blue Demons had only won two conference games this year (one a road win at Rutgers) so your typical Notre Dame fan was expecting a blowout win for the now red-hot Irish.

This was new territory for the young Notre Dame team: dealing with being the hunted rather than the hunter, dealing with the pressure of being expected to win a conference game against a team that could temper the taste of a sour season with a win against a longtime traditional rival.

It may be hard to believe, but bad basketball teams can be made up of good players. DePaul is loaded with extremely talented young players who have not yet learned how to play well together for 40 minutes, but they are getting there. This year's DePaul team got off to a 9-3 start, its best since the 1999-2000 season, and played well against the Irish.

The game was close, with DePaul grabbing a seven-point lead midway through the first half. The Irish did come back to retake the lead late in the first half before the half ended tied at 34-34. Knowing DePaul was just 2-9 in Big East play coming in, Irish fans grumbled a bit throughout the first half and as the teams headed to the lockeroom at halftime.

Things got more tense in the second half when DePaul went on a 9-0 run to take a one-point lead at the 8:39 mark. Yes, the Blue Demons' trap was baited for the Irish in this classic trap game, but the Irish would not take the bait. Led by Jack Cooley (career-high tying 22 points) and Jerian Grant (career high 22 points) down the stretch, the Irish broke a 68-68 tie with a 7-0 run of their own (including a huge three from Alex Dragicevich) and went on to win again 84-76, a very good win for any team in this situation in a Big East game.

One of the great things about this Notre Dame run is the fact that not just one or two players are leading the Irish to victory each night. Instead, a different player or two steps up his or their games each night to make the difference in the always tough Big East.

That said, this past week, Jack Cooley led the way with two monster efforts. Against West Virginia and DePaul, Cooley made 81 percent of his shots while averaging 21.5 points and 13 rebounds. He also blocked five shots and did not turn the ball over one while recording his seventh and eighth double-doubles of his career, all coming this season. Congratulations to Jack Cooley on winning the Big East Player of the Week award for the first time!

This is the fourth straight week a Notre Dame player has been honored by the Big East, so folks are starting to notice this Irish team, as are the media members and coaches who vote in the two weekly polls. Notre Dame is ranked 23rd in the AP Poll this week and 25th in the Coaches Poll, deserved rankings indeed.

Rutgers comes town Wednesday night, with a young athletic lineup that has the distinction of handing Notre Dame its last loss. They will not be intimidated by an Irish team on a six-game winning streak, and they will pack the same quickness that bothered the Irish on Jan. 16 in Piscataway.

But I also know that unlike that night in New Jersey, Brey's Fighting Irish expect to win Wednesday night. And they expect a little help from the Irish faithful in Purcell Pavilion, who have now rooted on the Irish to 32 wins in their last 33 home games.

Go Irish!

- Jack Nolan (@NDjackNolan)

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Event Calendar

September 4
7:30 PM
vs USF
Notre Dame, Ind. (Alumni Stadium)

September 4
4:00 PM
at Western Michigan
Kalamazoo, Mich. (WMU Soccer Complex)
September 4
4:00 PM
at Crusader Invitational
Valparaiso, Ind. (Sunset Hill Farm County Park)
September 4
7:00 PM
at Seton Hall
South Orange, N.J.

Live Video
September 5
7:30 PM
vs Texas
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September 5
12:00 PM
vs Temple
South Orange, N.J.
September 5
5:30 PM
vs Hofstra
South Orange, N.J.
September 6
2:00 PM
vs UAB
Notre Dame, Ind. (Alumni Stadium)

September 6
12:00 PM
at Michigan State
East Lansing, Mich. (DeMartin Soccer Complex)

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