Digger Phelps, the lucky stiff, recently has taken measures that will assure Notre Dame's winning 20 games, at the very least. Basketball degenerates know this to be fact; casual fans double over in laughter at such a forecast, slap their thighs and assume I've been into the silly sauce again.
Yes, I was in Capital Centre Wednesday night. Yes, I saw the Irish drop to 2-8 after a rout by the University of Ralph. Yes, I saw the most dominant player in college basketball and two other Cavaliers, so small they celebrate with high-threes, run Notre Dame off the court. Yes, I realize Digger's guys might not be competitive against perhaps half the teams left on their schedule.
But I didn't say Digger would rise this season, just that it will happen soon. The same realists who foresaw the Irish demise before the first official dribble this season expect their return to glory by late next season, because of what Phelps did before this Christmas.
Notre Dame probably will not win 12 games this season, but that record will not be an accurate barometer of its players. John Paxson is excellent, the latest Washington Connection, Tom Sluby and Cecil Rucker, quite good. How many other 6-foot-4 players would dare take the ball, as Sluby did, directly at 7-4 Ralph Sampson? Twice. And win.
"You can't shoot over him," Sluby reasoned. "You can't shoot around him."
So for Notre Dame's first points the former all-Met from Gonzaga tried to go through Sampson.
From midcourt, Sluby dribbled hell-bent toward Sampson. Both leaped and there was a collision near the basket. Somehow, the ball floated over Sampson and into the net. Sluby also made the free throw, and Notre Dame was as close as it would ever get, 6-3.
Sluby-David challenged Sampson-Goliath again midway through the second half, got a basket on goal tending and another foul shot, which he missed. Sampson retired to the bench two minutes later, the game safely in hand. And when he was not climbing Mount Sampson, Sluby scored just two other field goals.
Nobody in college basketball has another Sampson. But Notre Dame this year doesn't have anyone, experienced, over 6-8 except Tim Andree, the last of Digger's front-court Clydesdales whose problems with a stress fracture have made him more immobile than usual.
Several weeks before the season, when Phelps thought the Irish might be able to "steal" 20 victories, he was asked who would rebound all the missed shots.
He was silently hopeful.
In 10 games, it's a jump ball over which has been more embarrassing: having to play stall-ball against Kentucky, losing by 33 to Virginia here Wednesday or being beaten at home to such as Murray State and Northern Illinois.
Irish eyes have not been smiling over back-to-back slumps in football and basketball. And before the first Notre Dame football game of the season, before Gerry Faust was shown to be mortal after all, a sign was hoisted that read: "Does Moeller have a basketball coach?"
Phelps received an apology, the perpetrators saying they meant it more as affection for Faust than a harpoon at Digger. UCLA's Larry Farmer also said he was sorry for staying with full-court pressure too long in an early-season mismatch; Phelps accepted, but added he'd "remember."
The reasons offered for Digger's Dip are as numerous as the number of dazzling centers he has come close to signing but lost: promises not to recruit big men for a year after signing Orlando Woolridge and Gilbert Salinas, NBA coaching possibilities, failure to recruit as intensely as he did his first years in South Bend.
A coach who stops to smell the roses along the basketball trail inevitably will be overrun by a U-Haul stuffed with leapers and sleepers. A 40-year-old coach who takes the time to give his office a stylish, arty look and who actually has sense enough to escape a job as pressurized as any in sport, cannot help but come up dry on the court now and then.
How does Phelps see the titanic, cosmic, apocalyptic and peachy-keen Virginia-North Carolina game Saturday in Chapel Hill?
"I'm gonna go up to the lake, do some cross-country skiing," he said. "Sip a little wine and look at Lake Michigan. That's what I'm gonna do Saturday. Then I'm gonna come back Sunday and get on a plane. And if I can scrounge up a ticket, I'd like to see Dallas at San Francisco. Then we'll get ready to play USF (in Oakland)."
Phelps can be at ease in his leisure now because he has worked furiously, and successfully, at recruiting this year. Before Christmas, he signed four splendid players, three of them 6-8 or taller. He wants another tall fellow and a guard, preferably Johnny Dawkins of Mackin.
Did he try the same defensive tactics in this 33-point blowout that worked in suburban Chicago last year when the Irish upset the top-ranked Cavaliers by a point: surround Sampson and then give others open shots?
"That was a moment," he said, still savoring it. "We had a gambling defense last year that moment--and it worked." What he did not add was that the Irish also had seniors Woolridge, Kelly Tripucka and Tracy Jackson.
Like any good gambler, Phelps knows that it's time to hold 'em against many teams this year, and time to fold 'em sometimes against such as Virginia. And that if these new players are as good as anticipated, he'll shortly be able to run once again.