By TOM NOIE Tribune Staff Writer
2:04 AM EST, February 3, 2011
ROSEMONT, Ill. -- When Notre Dame and DePaul renew what once was a tough ticket for a fierce rivalry between independents here Thursday, it will be the only time the Irish visit the Chicago area this college basketball season.
Or will it?
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey prefers to not peek too far into the future, for something in the Big East might sneak up and surprise. Yet when the Irish recently enjoyed a nine-day break from game action, Brey allowed himself a glimpse at the various “Bracketology” projections for the 2011 NCAA tournament.
More than a few sites have Notre Dame as high as a No. 3 seed and opening tournament play in Chicago at the United Center.
“That would be neat to get on a bus and just head over,” Brey said. “We’d have a great following over there.”
Should the Irish be that fortunate, it would mark the first time since the 2003 NCAA tournament that Notre Dame could skip another long charter flight to participate in March Madness. That year, Notre Dame was a No. 5 seed and bussed 150 miles south to Indianapolis to play in the since-demolished RCA Dome. It was there where the Irish beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Illinois for their first Sweet 16 trip since 1987.
“That worked out pretty good,” Brey said. “That’s gone through my mind.”
It also would be the first time that Notre Dame has played an NCAA tournament game so close to home - 90 miles - since 1985 when it hosted the first two rounds at the old Joyce Center.
Selection committee officials long ago adopted a policy that they would do all they could to keep teams as close to their home regions as possible for the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament. Notre Dame apparently never was included in that memo. In their last three NCAA tournament appearances - 2007, 2008 and 2010 - the Irish have been sent about as far away as possible.
Notre Dame opened tournament play in Spokane (1,584 miles from South Bend), Denver (980) and New Orleans (827), respectively.
“We weren’t like super-low seeds,” Brey said. “I don’t know. Are they still (ticked) off about the NBC contract and us not joining the Big Ten?
“You’re (just) honored to be in it and honored to be part of it.”
As for the Irish, all they care about is being included in the field of 68, something that was not the case this time last year before Notre Dame tossed together a late string of conference wins to play their way in. But a 3 seed today might be a No. 4 seed tomorrow or a 5 seed the day after. Chicago could quickly become an afterthought.
“It changes so much,” said senior captain Tim Abromaitis. “It’s really not important at this point.”
Other second- and third-round NCAA tournament sites include Charlotte, N.C.; Cleveland, Denver, Tampa, Fla.; Tulsa, Okla.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Washington.
Jumping back into the top 10 of both national polls this week was something that did not go unnoticed by the Irish, who opened the season far off the national radar.
“They do mean a lot,” Brey said of the rankings, which has Notre Dame at No. 8 in one poll (ESPN/USA Today) and No. 9 in the other (Associated Press).
It marks the third time since the Sweet 16 season of 2002-03 that Notre Dame has enjoyed two separate stints in the top 10. The last time it happened was in 2008-09 when the Irish opened No. 9 and later climbed to No. 7 before a seven-game losing streak sent them to the postseason National Invitation Tournament.
It took Brey less than the first week of practice to sense something might be special about this group, which was focused and driven like few previous Irish squads.
“To their credit, they’ve been great at keeping their foot on the gas and chasing stuff down,” Brey said. “It’s a heck of a position for our program and this team. We’re honored to be there.”
Still, Brey admitted, he’s not all that surprised.
“I thought we’d be good,” he said. “I felt we could be really good in our league.”
Good to go
Senior captain Carleton Scott returned 15 days ahead of schedule after a slight tear in his left hamstring forced him to miss four games.
After a cameo (six points, two rebounds in 15 minutes) in his Jan. 19 return and win over Cincinnati, Scott delivered 11 points and 10 rebounds in the win over Marquette on Jan. 22 before 16 points and nine rebounds in the upset of Pittsburgh. He played 34 minutes each of the last two games.
Nine days away from game action helped Scott get better. Really better.
“It feels completely healed,” Scott said of his hamstring. “I took it easy at first, let it calm down a bit. It feels great.”
While the break was beneficial, Scott wished the Irish could get back on the floor sooner than Thursday’s game against DePaul, which starts a stretch of four games in 10 days.
“It feels like it’s been forever, especially when you come off a big win like that; you want to keep it going,” Scott said. “Now we have a chance to gear it back up. That’s a good feeling.”
No mystery men
Irish fans unfamiliar with a DePaul team still without a league win might look at its leading scorer, a freshman from Baltimore making a serious run at Big East rookie of the year honors and wonder who in the world is Cleveland Melvin?
Scouting the Blue Demons earlier this week, Brey drew the comparison between Melvin and another Baltimore product that tormented the Big East - former Connecticut standout Rudy Gay.
“I’m very impressed with him,” Brey said. “He is a great young talent in our league. A guy’s getting those kinds of numbers, I don’t care what year he is.
“He gets them going.”
Melvin averages a team-high 14.5 points with 4.7 rebounds in 24.4 minutes. He’s shooting 52.6 percent from the field and has a team-high 33 blocked shots.
Another freshman, guard Brandon Young, is second in scoring (11.7) and first in minutes (31.6). Young, who played on the same AAU team (Team Takeover) as Notre Dame freshman Jerian Grant, received some recruiting interest from the Irish.
“I’m very impressed with what he’s doing,” Brey said of Young, also a Baltimore native who played at Friendship Collegiate School.Staff writer Tom Noie: email@example.com 574-235-6153
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