Heading into what could be Notre Dame's last season before joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, coach Mike Brey would like the Fighting Irish to take something with them as they prepare to leave the Big East: their first ever outright regular-season title.
Brey said he began talking about that goal with his players in March, after they squandered a 10-point lead midway through the second half and lost 67-63 to Xavier in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He's been talking about it with them regularly ever since.
"We've been pretty darn close to that and been in the mix before," Brey said Thursday during media day. "It's a realistic thing we've talked about in the spring and the summer."
The Irish finished second in the league in 2010-11 and won the West Division in 2000-01. But with some speculating the Irish could leave for the ACC a year ahead of the planned 2014 departure, this could be the last chance to claim the regular-season title. Irish players say they have adopted the goal.
"That's the main goal," said 6-foot-9 forward Jack Cooley, who averaged 12.5 points and 8.9 rebounds. "If we handle our business on the road to trying to win a Big East regular-season championship, the tournaments stuff will take care of itself."
Brey knows some people will have even higher expectations with all the starters back from a team that went 22-12 and finished third in the Big East with a 13-5 record. Brey said the Irish reserves will give a bench as deep as any he can remember in his 12 seasons with the Irish.
Brey said some people might compare this year's team to the veteran squad he had two years ago, when the Irish earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and finished the season 27-7.
"That team 30 minutes into the first practice was a finished product and it was a very good product. Because it was very consistent all the way through and got a No. 2 seed. This group, where it's experienced, I really believe can improve and they really believe they can improve," he said.
Brey said that's why he's focusing trying to win a league championship and isn't talking about other goals. He wants to keep the players focused on getting better, not the big picture.
Guard Scott Martin said he doesn't even want to look ahead to league play, saying right now the Irish need to focus on practice. He said that's how they turned around last season after getting off to a 7-5 start.
"We reinvented ourselves in practice and really worked hard," he said. "I think that's the idea we have to come into practice with. This is where it all starts."
Brey said he plans to put a sign up on every player's locker on Friday: "Work to deliver," saying it's his way of reminding them to stay focused on delivering on their goals.
"Starting with trying to chase down a regular-season title is a good initial thing for us, period. Let's start with that," he said.
The Irish open the season Nov. 10 against Evansville.