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Classic Homecoming for Connaughton

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The Salem News - Notre Dame senior guard Scott Martin surveyed the somewhat chaotic but deliriously happy postgame scene at the XL Center here yesterday and just shook his head.

Hundreds of people from the North Shore and his hometown of Arlington had come out to see former St. John's Prep great Pat Connaughton play against the University of Connecticut and now, after a stunning 50-48 upset over the No. 19 Huskies, it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of him.

Martin was thrilled for his freshman teammate and friend.

"Yeah, just look at this," Martin said. "I don't even KNOW as many people as (Connaughton) is seeing today. And they all came to see him play this game? This is something else."

Connaughton has never been one to call attention to himself in an artificial kind of way. He lets his play on the court speak on his behalf, and lately the volume has been turned up.

Anyone who said that Connaughton would never be able to play against the so-called big boys at the highest level of college basketball, particularly as a freshman, should've seen this game.

Connaughton nailed a pair of 3-pointers and finished with eight points and five rebounds in 28 minutes. He hit two critical free throws with 51.9 seconds remaining, making it a two-possession game in favor of the Fighting Irish, 47-42. Overall, his impact was much larger than anything that showed up on the stat sheet.

From the opposition's standpoint, Connaughton is an aggravating player. Why is it that, at 6-foot-5, he rebounds better than guys who are bigger and stronger? He plays intelligently, too, clearing himself for three-point opportunities or making backdoor cuts when the defense falls asleep. And hard-nosed defense has become one of his staples.

UConn coach Jim Calhoun displayed his respect for Connaughton yesterday by often putting sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb on him. Lamb is merely one of the most gifted and athletic players in the country.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't think about (Lamb)," Connaughton said. "You just go out and play the game. He (Lamb) was just the guy on the other team."

Williams Weathering Basketball Storm With Faith

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montywilliamsformer.jpg SI.com - Monty Williams walks where no NBA coach has walked before. He leads a New Orleans team that is owned by the league and shaped by the commissioner. He guides a club that began training camp with only five players under contract and today boasts nine new faces. He coaches a squad that endured seven days of near trades, a vetoed deal and collapsed proposals before All-Star point guard Chris Paul was sent to the Los Angeles Clippers.

In exchange, Williams received a new team: Extreme Makeover, Hornets Edition. With the departure of Paul and leading scorer David West to Indiana, the franchise lacks star power. With the arrival of new bodies and spare parts, the Hornets have gained lottery power. The Paul trade allowed the team to clear cap space, secure an unconditional first-round pick in June, add young shooting guard Eric Gordon and build for the future.

But Williams doesn't intend to wait. "We don't feel like we are starting over," he said after Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al-Farouq Aminu arrived from the Clippers. "We plan on winning and we plan on winning big."

If the Hornets win big with their current roster, Williams will be in Coach of the Year contention. New Orleans has lost 11 of its first 14 games, hobbling. Gordon has missed 12 games with a bruised knee; Trevor Ariza missed eight with a strained groin before returning Wednesday against Memphis. He led the Hornets with 18 points, but New Orleans lost its fifth straight. Through Wednesday, the Hornets rank 28th in three-point shooting (27.5 percent) and 28th in scoring (86.7 points per game).

Williams faces challenges beyond shooting and scoring. There's no playbook for a team without a human owner. There's no manual for moving forward after a trade saga like Paul's. "I've never seen anything like this," Williams said.


Brey Has Notre Dame In the Mix ... Again

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CBSsports.com - Just about every year, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey enters the season hoping to make things interesting. He knows what he's up against in South Bend, going up against guys named Boeheim, Calhoun, Pitino, Huggins and even Dixon and Wright for a chance to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

It's not an easy task.

This year it became more than just interesting when Brey's top player and one of the elite guys in the Big East, Tim Abromaitis, went down with a season-ending injury after playing just two games.

"If you told me we'd be 5-3 in the league after Gonzaga made us look like a JV team for 40 minutes, I'd have fallen off my chair into the showers," Brey said. "But that's what's so great about our game and the length of the season."

Especially, Brey maintains, in the Big East.

"You just have to pick off a few," Brey said. "You don't have to win them all, but if you win the right ones, you can be in the discussion."

Well, Brey and the Irish have picked off Louisville and Seton Hall on the road -- and got a huge one last weekend when they handed Syracuse it's lone setback of the season.

"As proud as I was of our guys Saturday against Syracuse, I was even more proud of them against Seton Hall," Brey said. "They had every reason not to be ready to go after what happened Saturday. Fans were still talking about our Syracuse game, but we figured out a way to win on the road against an NCAA tournament team."

Now Notre Dame, the team that lost to Georgia back in late-November and also couldn't get past Maryland in early-December, has made its way into the discussion. Brey said that it's taken time to get accustomed to being without Ambromaitis and a few other guys.

"We had a dysfunctional November and December," Brey admitted. "Abro was in and out, Scott Martin (ankle) missed three weeks of practice, (Jack) missed the Maryland game and Atkins missed two games, It was crazy."

What's nuts is that we're talking about Notre Dame, even after losing the potential Big East Player of the Year, being in the mix for the NCAA tournament. Brey said he wasn't expecting to hand the keys over to his sophomore backcourt -- Atkins and Jerian Grant. However, that's exactly what he's done and the duo has responded.

"We've never had two guys with that kind of speed and athleticism in the backcourt," Brey said. "It changes us on both ends of the floor."

And Cooley is starting to become known for his play on the court instead of his facial comparison to ex-Irish star Luke Harangody. He's averaging 12.9 points and 9.8 boards in league play.

Next up for the Irish is a trip to Hartford and a matchup against UConn on Sunday. But Brey is smart enough to realize this game won't define Notre Dame's chances to make the NCAA tournament for what would be the fifth time in the past six years.

"Two years ago, we went from 6-8 in the league and a flat-out NIT team to a number six seed," Brey said. "That's what's great about our league. But on the flip side, a few years back we lost seven in a row. It can bite you quick, but you always have opportunities."

Irish Connection - Episode 34

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Coaches Corner

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ESPN.com - The day after his team handed previous-No. 1 Syracuse its first loss, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey wanted just one thing: a local watering hole, some good friends and a few hours of football.

There is little time to enjoy the good times in college basketball, especially if you are a team like the Fighting Irish -- good, but not great, talented but raw. The sweet taste of victory has the staying power of a court-storming, over and cleared out almost as quickly as it started.

But Brey was going to give himself and his team a 24-hour respite from the hamster wheel, a Sunday to celebrate a win. The victory elevated the Irish to 4-3 in the Big East, 12-8 overall, a respectable record for most teams, an extraordinary one under the circumstances for Notre Dame. The Irish lost senior leader Tim Abromaitis in November. Considered middle-of-the-pack to begin with, Abromaitis' injury took Notre Dame off the radar.

But Brey has made a career out of surprising people. He memorably led the Irish through a tortoise-paced run without Luke Harangody and has quietly made Notre Dame into a consistent winner.

ESPN.com caught up with Brey on the one day he allotted himself a little euphoria and a temporary escape before digging in his heels again for a Wednesday date with Seton Hall.

Dana O'Neil: When Tim Abromaitis tore his ACL, what did you tell your team?

Mike Brey: I used Luke [Harangody] going down as an example. I hit that really hard in our first meeting and that first week. We were 6-8 when Luke got hurt. Of course, while I'm selling it to them, I have my fingers crossed behind my back. But I felt like, if we could just inch along and be at our best in New York City [for the Big East Tournament], we'd be OK. That was really the only way for me and my staff to keep our sanity.

It's different than last year. There's more teaching, being positive and giving confidence. The second day after Abro got hurt, we were standing at halfcourt and practice wasn't very good and for that one moment, I think I might have said, "Oh boy, we're not that good." And like a good assistant, Martin Ingelsby said, "You know what? This is going to be a great challenge for us. Let's have some fun with it." And I thought, "You know what? You're right. I'm good.''

Could you have survived this maybe 15 years ago? At an earlier point in your career?

MB: That would have been ... oh God, I would have been all over the board. I think I've learned to be older and wiser. Then I would have been much more anxious, not sleeping so good. But I've learned to pace myself. But at this point in my career, I'm having fun with it. I'm not trying to fight for my job. I'm enjoying and teaching and knowing, that, OK, we took some punches and we'll take some more in the future, but we're playing with house money. When Tim went down, we had nothing to lose. We were so far off the board, no one expected anything out of us.

And now that you're back on the board, by beating Syracuse, how do you get your team to refocus for Seton Hall?

MB: When you get one like we did, you get where 9-9 [in the league] is in range and you think, hey we're being talked about. If you told me after we lost to Gonzaga in the locker room, that we'd be 4-3 and beat Syracuse, I would have fallen off my chair. I told them normal teams are supposed to lose on Wednesday. They just are. If you're normal, an average Joe, you take that bullet because you're not supposed to get that one. So that's the thing? Are we just normal? If we can bounce back and get this one on the road, that's showing signs of being something special.

Have you ever seen the Big East so wildly unpredictable?

MB: It's more turned upside down than ever. We're not that top-rated league, but everybody is still watching. The drama that comes out of our league, whether on the court or off, that's why people watch. When the league started last year, we had nine teams that had the look [of an NCAA Tournament team]. This year, we've got maybe four or five in October. So if you're a team that doesn't have the look then, you feel as if there are spots to get. Last year, if you weren't one of the nine, you're thinking on Jan. 5, "Geez, I hope we can get to the NIT."

Why is the league so unstable?

MB: I think that, other than Syracuse, the margin for everyone is really thin. It's really fragile. We've got new faces playing key roles and it's about handling success or handling not playing well. Guys don't know how to do that. I think that's why we see the roller coaster. But it's great for the league.

Look at our repeat opponents. We did the straw poll in June. No one knew Andre Drummond was going to show up at Connecticut. We repeat with them. We repeat with Rutgers and West Virginia. If I told you in July that West Virginia would be tougher than Pitt, you would have said, "Shut up, Mike." If I would have told you Rutgers would have been tougher than Villanova, you would have said, "Shut up, Mike."

That's why it's such a roller coaster. The straw poll, what's expected, is upside down.

Hear It From a Student - Legendary Night

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From the moment I walked into the student section of the Joyce Center last Saturday night, I knew there was a chance I'd see history. There was an electric feeling in the air as the video screen showed clips of previous No. 1 teams that had fallen to the Fighting Irish. Once the game actually tipped off and the Irish quickly jumped out to an early 11-2 lead, the atmosphere became even more intense. Something magical was in the air.

Saturday's game was a showcase for the perseverance and resiliency of this Notre Dame team. Many declared the Irish season over when tri-captain and starting forward Tim Abromaitis was lost for the season to an ACL injury. But the team kept fighting back, and refused to admit defeat in the face of immense obstacles. New faces like Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton emerged as key contributors, while captains Eric Atkins and Scott Martin kept the team focused on their mission. The result has been a team that refuses to give in to any opponent.

This team is not defined by a single superstar, but by a group of players who understand each other and care more about winning than their individual numbers. On any given night, any one of several players is capable of rising to the challenge of leading his team to victory. Saturday night, forward Jack Cooley did just that. His 17 points and 10 rebounds were crucial against a tough Syracuse team, and he came up big in important moments. His powerful slam dunk in transition with just over five minutes left to play in the game was the signature moment in a signature win.

Getting to witness such an incredible game and such an amazing effort from the Irish players was something I will never forget. When I ran with the rest of the students to storm the court, I got caught up with everyone else in the emotion of the moment. I couldn't think about how impressive of a win this was, how incredible Notre Dame's dominance when playing at home in Purcell Pavilion has been, or how this win would help our chances of making the NCAA tournament. All I could do was revel in the moment. And I know that those minutes we spent on the court, chanting "We are ND" and singing the Alma Mater together as one student body, will stay with me forever.

They say Notre Dame is a place where legends live. On Saturday night, another legend was born.

- Tom McGuire ('14)

What Fueled the Fire?

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Men's hoops head coach Mike Brey played this video - courtesy of @AlDogg44 - for his squad the night before it toppled No. 1 Syracuse. There will be a few more highlights on it the next time Notre Dame faces a top-ranked squad.

Deep Thoughts

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When is someone going to create a Jack Nolan soundboard?

Is Jack Cooley a shorter but more fleet-footed Arvydas Sabonis?

Has any coach in American gotten more out of his team than Mike Brey?

What happened to the referee (middle right of screen) after the 3:35 mark?

That had to be a record for the fastest floor storm in Joyce Center history, right?

Following Flynt - Incredible.

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The magic at Purcell continues. Syracuse joins the list with North Carolina, DePaul, Marquette, San Francisco and UCLA. For the sixth consecutive time, and first in nearly 25 years, a #1 team arrives at the Purcell Pavilion and leaves with a loss.

Jumping out to an early 11-2 advantage, the Fighting Irish led from the beginning and never looked back. Tonight's win is the eighth in program history over an opponent ranked first in the Associated Press Poll.

The last win came on Feb. 1, 1987, when the top ranked North Carolina Tar Heels visited South Bend and lost to Digger Phelps Irish team, 60-58. But enough with stats and history...

As a student, I was fortunate to see several exciting games, but I've never seen anything like what we were privileged to witness tonight. From the opening tip-off, the faithful Leprechaun Legion treated every Irish basket like it was a game-winning buzzer beater. And it was Jack Cooley's two-handed slam in the second half that seemed to provide the assurance that on this evening, South Bend was destined to be Upset City.

Tonight, was a perfect example of the beauty of sports and how anything can happen on any given night. The 2011-12 Notre Dame men's basketball team proved that it can play with the best of them.

Overall, just an incredible night for the team, fans and students. I have no doubt that Jan. 21, 2012 is a night that will be talked about when the current classes of students celebrate their respective 30- or 40-year Notre Dame reunions.

We'll have plenty of coverage coming later on UND.com and I will have more thoughts later this weekend on Notre Dame's upset at Purcell (right now, I'm honestly still trying to process/soak in what happened). Keep an eye out for the latest Irish Connection, which is sure to feature some more great footage from the post-game scene on the court, but for now, I'll leave you with this video...

- Josh Flynt ('11)

Live Chat - Men's Basketball vs. Syracuse

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Notre Dame continues BIG EAST Conference action tonight at Purcell Pavilion when it takes on #1 Syracuse at 6:00 p.m. (ET).

Irish UNDerground will have all the angles in and around the action covered throughout tonight's game. Be sure to share your questions, comments and complaints and let your voice be heard throughout the Notre Dame nation.

Want to track all the action from your mobile device? No problem.

Simply click (or to be phone friendly, "touch") HERE.

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