Mens Basketball: Irish hope to make Wildcats blue
By: ANDREW SOUKUP
Matt Carroll vividly remembers the last time the Irish traveled to Kentucky's Rupp Arena.
Fireworks exploded. Blue-clad fans galvanized the home team into a frenzy. The visitors got rattled — a lot.
"It is probably one of the biggest spectacles in college basketball," Carroll said.
But when No. 9 Notre Dame (14-2) travels to play No. 16 Kentucky (12-3) Saturday for the teams' third meeting in as many years, Carroll is confident the Irish won't repeat their disastrous performance of two years ago.
Then, as a wide-eyed role-playing sophomore, Carroll played on a Notre Dame basketball team that had yet to appear in an NCAA Tournament and was quickly fading out of the top 25. They lost 82-71.
This year's team is completely different.
"Notre Dame is on the map, I consider us one of the elite programs in the country," said Carroll, averaging a team-high 20.1 points per game. "We've been in the top 25 for a while, we've beat some of the best teams in the country this year which I don't think we've done in the past."
Notre Dame's success has a great deal to do with Carroll's consistency. Since Big East play started, the senior guard has averaged 25 points per game and played virtually every minute.
More importantly, Carroll gives the Irish a calming presence on the court. Although it's hard to identify a go-to player in Notre Dame's team-oriented offense, Carroll best fits the mold.
"I don't think it's an out-there statement to say that nobody is playing better in college basketball right now. A top 10 team, your most consistent guy," Brey said. "It's rewarding for me to see a senior playing well."
To look for the point where Carroll's season truly took off, one should turn back the clock 10 months. That's when Carroll, in the Big East Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, lit up opposing defenses by scoring 20 points in each of Notre Dame's final four games.
The spectacular end to his season propelled him into a summer leadership role, where he organized team workouts while Brey was off-campus recruiting. More importantly, he emerged as one of the most vocal players in the Irish locker room and garnered respect from teammates he earned years ago.
"Our guys have the utmost respect for Matt because they've seen how consistent a personality, a player and person he is," Brey said. "So when he says things, they really listen."
Now, Carroll has evolved from a pure shooter into a multi-dimensional weapon, capable of driving through the lane or hitting 3-pointers at will. After his team lost to the Irish Tuesday, Rutgers coach Gary Waters was convinced that had Carroll shot more in Notre Dame's tournament loss to Duke last season, the Irish would have won easily.
The Irish may count on Carroll more than ever in Lexington. In Notre Dame's two losses this season to Creighton and Pittsburgh, Carroll averaged 25.5 points and played a pivotal role.
But Brey emphasized after Tuesday's win the Irish have to trust each other on offense. And Carroll, for his part, said Notre Dame's success is often directly related to how well Chris Thomas plays.
Against the deep Wildcats, the Irish perimeter will have to play exceptionally well. As the Irish continue to search for an inside presence — Jordan Cornette has shown the most consistency among Notre Dame's true big men — Carroll and the rest of the Irish perimeter will have to contend with guard Keith Bogans, who averages over 17 points a game.
The Irish in general have proven much so far this season. What they haven't shown is their ability to win in a tough road environment.
But Carroll remains convinced the Irish have learned from every mistake this season. Saturday, they get a chance to win at Rupp Arena, where Notre Dame hasn't won in its last seven trips.
"Creighton, we learned from that one and went on a winning streak. Pitt was tough, but we learned," Carroll said. "Now I think we're ready to go, it's going to be a tough game, it's going to be a hard place to play.
"But if we play our game, we're going to win."
All Sports Stories for Friday, January 17, 2003