Irish travel to No. 17 Syracuse for a matchup of Big East West Division leaders
BY CHRIS FEDERICO
After beating No. 4 Pittsburgh 66-64 last Sunday, the road should only get easier for the Irish.
But only a week after one of the biggest victories in the history of its program, No. 10 Notre Dame (19-4, 7-2 in the Big East) must travel to No. 17 Syracuse Saturday for a matchup with the only other Big East team to beat the Panthers this year.
"It's tough, but this is the Big East, and that's how the schedule is," said Notre Dame guard Matt Carroll, who leads the Irish in scoring this season with 20.6 points a game. "But we're looking forward to it. It's crunch time of the year, and we're excited to go take on a big challenge up in the Carrier Dome."
With the trip to Syracuse, the Irish will have to prove they can handle hostile environments, something they have struggled with this season. While undefeated at home, Notre Dame is 2-3 in opponents' arenas, with losses coming at Pittsburgh, Kentucky and Seton Hall.
Following the physically and mentally testing win over Pittsburgh last week, the Irish have had the benefit this week of not having to play a mid-week game. The break came at a good time for players to get a rest from game action before the tough trip to Syracuse.
"[The break] really helps the legs get back into it," Carroll said. "A couple of days off let us refresh a little bit, especially this time of year, and we should be fresh for the game on Saturday."
The long week also gives the Irish extra time to prepare for a talented foe in the Orangemen.
"I think it's always good to have a week off in terms of getting in the practice facilities and working on some things to kind of tune up for your next game," Irish forward Jordan Cornette said. "With such a talented team with so many weapons like Syracuse, it's good to have a full week of practice to kind of focus in on specific things that make them tick and make them go, and kind of shut that down when we get there on Saturday."
Even with the tough back-to-back matchups, several Irish players see the game as a chance to prove themselves as leaders in the conference.
"I think it's a good run for this team. I think it's going to test us a lot so we can see what we're made of really," Cornette said. "It gives us the chance to prove to the Big East that the beginning of the year wasn't a fluke and that we're here for real."
As many previous Big East games have done this year, Saturday's matchup with the Orangemen should provide another test for the Notre Dame interior players such as Cornette, Torin Francis and Tom Timmermans. Syracuse is led in scoring and rebounds by a pair of 6-foot-8 forwards in Carmelo Anthony and Hakim Warrick, who have combined for over 37 points and 18 rebounds a game this year.
"A lot of games this year the big guys have been tested, and this is just another one of those games," Cornette said. "We're the big guys who are going to be tested against some talented inside guys, and I think it's going to be another great challenge that me, Tom and Torin are really looking forward to."
The Orangemen have compiled a 16-3 record this season and are 7-3 in the Big East, just a half game behind Notre Dame for first place in the West Division standings.
"If you look at it, whoever wins this game is going to be in first place," Carroll said. "It's between us, Syracuse and Pitt. We got Pitt and now we've got to get Syracuse, or they're going to move ahead of us, so this is a big game for both of us."
Syracuse handed Pittsburgh its only other conference loss on Feb. 1 in the Carrier Dome, but the Orangemen are coming off a lopsided 75-61 loss on the road against Connecticut.
"To be a special team, you've got to win special games," Cornette said. "You go to win the big ones. To put together a week of beating Pitt and then going to Syracuse and beating them at their place would be nice for this team."
All Sports Stories for Friday, February 14, 2003