Notre Dame Fighting Irish Have Become Just "The Irish"

Torey ZiskaCorrespondent IIFebruary 24, 2009

For Notre Dame, the 2008-2009 college hoops season started out with much anticipation and high expectations. Coming off a season in which they finished second in the Big East during the regular season with 24 wins (14 of those in conference play), big things were expected from the Irish.

They started the season ranked sixth in the AP poll and were expected by most to be a top 10 team for most of the season. They won their first four games, including a win over the seventh ranked team, the Texas Longhorns, during the Maui Invitational.

Unfortunately for the Irish, not only was their next opponent (UNC) the favorite to win the NCAA tournament this season, their hard-nosed star player, Luke Harangody, a junior, had come down with a case of pneumonia and was nowhere near 100 percent for the game. The Irish lost 102-87, despite 39 points, including 10 three-pointers, from perhaps one of the best three-point shooters in the nation, Kyle McAlarney.

The Irish went on to win eight of their next 10 games, with a five-point loss to the underrated Buckeyes, and a disappointing loss to St. John's.

Halfway through their season schedule, and just four games into their Big East schedule, Notre Dame sat at 12-3 and still ranked in the top 20.  The next eight games on the Irish schedule, however, may have been one of the toughest eight-game stretches any team has seen in the last decade.

They first went on the road to play at Louisville and at Syracuse. They then headed back to South Bend to take on UConn and Marquette at home, where the Irish had won an astounding 45 consecutive home games. Following that, they went back on the road to play at Pitt, at Cincinnati, and at UCLA. Finally they ended this eight-game stretch with a home game against Louisville, the team they started the stretch with.

The Irish lost their first of these eight games, a hard-fought battle in overtime against Louisville. They proceeded to get blown out by the Orangemen of Syracuse in their next game.

But then the Irish headed home for two games against two of the best teams in the country, UConn and Marquette. With their home winning streak on the line, the Irish fought hard, but lost by eight points to UConn, and followed that up with yet another home loss, this time by seven to the Golden Eagles.

Having lost four straight, the Irish had fallen from the rankings and needed to turn things around. They headed to Pittsburgh to face the Panthers (currently ranked No. 1 in the nation), followed by two more road games in Cincinnati and against UCLA. The Irish woes continued, as they lost by 13, 10, and 26 respectively. 

It seemed as if Notre Dame had hit rock bottom against UCLA, when Harangody (24.2 points and 12.4 boards per game) managed a pedestrian five points and one rebound. However, the Irish finally turned it around on the eighth and final game of their brutal stretch, pounding Louisville by 33 points, thanks to Harangody's 32 points and 17 rebounds, as well as five three-pointers by Ryan Ayers and McAlarney.

The Irish now sat at 13-10, near the bottom of the Big East. They went on to win three of their next four, including an impressive 103-84 win over Providence, in which Ayers scored 28 points, including seven three-pointers, and played all 40 minutes.

The Irish have four games remaining on their schedule, not counting the Big East tournament. One would think if they win all four, they would be in, seeing as it would put their conference record at 10-8. However, one of those games is on the road at UConn, ranked No. 1 for nearly a month this season.

If the Irish don't come away with a victory, but win their other three games, they would be 9-9 in the conference and would still have a decent shot at the NCAA tournament. If they lose more than one of their final four games, they likely will have to make a deep run in the Big East tournament if they want to avoid playing in the NIT.

The Irish are one of the highest scoring teams in the country, and if they can find a way to keep their three-point shooting hot, they will be a very dangerous team in March. If they struggle from distance the "Fighting" Irish won't be putting up much of a fight against anyone.