Two-a-day practices followed by two Big East wins: that was Notre Dame's recipe for success during the past week.
Following a stunning loss at Rutgers Jan. 30, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey had the Irish practice twice last Tuesday, including an 8 AM workout, and the Fighting Irish responded with home victories against Cincinnati on Thursday and South Florida on Sunday.
"We will have to compete that way the rest of the way to have a shot at the NCAA tournament. Period. Plain and simple," Brey said about the Fighting Irish's 83-65 victory against Cincinnati.
The Fighting Irish (17-7, 6-5 Big East) currently have a 59 RPI ranking, according to CollegeRPI.com, and is not included in any of the various online projected NCAA tournament fields.
However, they will have several opportunities to improve their NCAA tournament resume. Notre Dame's remaining seven Big East games include three consecutive games against Top 50 RPI teams – at Louisville (Feb. 17), home vs. Pittsburgh (Feb. 24) and at Georgetown (Feb. 27).
Brey, who also had the Fighting Irish practice twice daily last year to snap a seven-game skid, said he needed to create a sense of urgency with his team with the two-a-day workouts.
"We had a tough week, we had lost four of our last five," Brey said. "You've got to jump start and get it going back the other way.
"I've got great leadership. I can talk to them a little bit, I push a few buttons and get them back on the tracks."
Brey said in the past week he thought his club "learned something." Notre Dame senior Luke Harangody said he welcomed Brey's challenge of becoming a more blue-collar player.
"It's something coach challenged me, if I can get 14-15 rebounds," Harangody said. "It's something I took personally as a challenge. I like it when he does that. When we rebound we can win."
In Notre Dame's last two victories, Harangody certainly responded. He had 37 points and 14 rebounds against Cincinnati and 19 points and 15 rebounds against South Florida, including two game-clinching free throws with four seconds remaining in the 65-62 victory.
Harangody is averaging a Big East-best 24.5 points and 10.1 rebounds, which ranks second in the league.
"He's fabulous," Brey said of Harangody. "He's always 'Coach what do I need to do?' Him being around the basket, that's the old blue collar Luke Harangody from maybe his earlier years. We need to stay on that theme the rest of the way."
Brey also said the play of another senior Tory Jackson has been critical. Especially his season high 18-point afternoon against South Florida on Sunday.
"Tory Jackson has been flat out fabulous," Brey said. "He refuses to let us lose, but I'm not surprised because he's been running our locker room since Christmas."
Jackson, who has started four seasons for Notre Dame, is among the nation's leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.4 with 137 assists to only 40 turnovers), but it was his scoring down the stretch that lifted Notre Dame past USF.
"Tory just figured in the last seven minutes, I've got to win the game for us," Brey said. "He just one physically and mentally tough guy that pulled us along and made us believe."
Trailing 50-44 with 10:07 remaining, Jackson scored 12 of Notre Dame's final 21 points, including five of Notre Dame's final seven points.
"I've been in [coaching] 25 years, I've not been around a better leader who is an upbeat energy guy every day in practice," Brey said. "Knows how to talk to every personality on the team and what button to push, probably better than me and then delivers when we ask him to deliver. 'OK, guard the best player, but I can't take out by the way Tory. I can't get you a rest because I can't afford to have you off the floor.'
"It's just a great example of leadership and toughness and he is flat out been running this group. Really all year, but since we started the Big East when the heat is really on. He's really delivered on a daily basis as a leader. I'm really proud of him. I'm happy for him."
Brey said against USF, he got to a point where he just told Jackson to just drive the ball inside and create whatever offense he could.
"We finally said at the eight-minute mark -- we couldn't really move and run our offense -- just drive," Brey said. "Just swing it and drive and make [the officials] make some calls. He was the one that could do it best."
In the final nine minutes, Notre Dame only made only four field goals. Jackson was responsible for all four of them.
Jackson said even though he had missed "a lot of those shots" in the past, he never hesitated.
"I never had a doubt," Jackson said. "In my mind I wanted that shot [with 1:01 remaining that gave Notre Dame a five-point lead]. I thought 'me being a senior don't doubt yourself, go out there and fight and be confident when you take a shot.' "
Jackson, who has started 62 of 63 Big East games at Notre Dame, is averaging 8.1 points and 5.7 assists this season.
With the momentum of their two-game home winning streak, the Fighting Irish visit Seton Hall Thursday. Playing on the Big East road isn't an easy proposition, especially for the Fighting Irish, who are only 3-11 in their last 14 Big East road games.
"There's a balance when you're in the meat grinder [of the Big East schedule] – of being hard on guys and giving confidence and telling guys when they had a tough night 'you're still my guy' and bounce back," Brey said. "Be a confidence giver overall. That's why I think you've seen guys improve in this system. But this league can really test it.
"[The Big East] is whole new level; a whole 'nother world. The biggest challenge – maneuvering and negotiating the Big East. It's a league of men, physically and mentally; the ones that can survive it, to finish in that top eight you have to be men. It's a great challenge. An exciting league. So many different styles of play. An unbelievable amount of drama."
Contact FanHouse senior writer Brett McMurphy at email@example.com