-- For Notre Dame, the road to the NCAA tournament turned out to be an easy bus ride here from South Bend. Playing the games will be the harder part for the Irish, despite being awarded a No. 5 seed in the West Region and having a home-state crowd behind them.

Mike Brey will be trying to coach the Irish to an NCAA first-round victory for the third time in three seasons, but will have to reverse a recent trend to do it. Having lost four of its past five games, including a first-round setback in the Big East tournament, Notre Dame (22-9) will take on Horizon League champion and No. 12-seed Wisconsin-Milwaukee (24-7) Thursday night in the RCA Dome, with the winner meeting the winner of Illinois-Western Kentucky Saturday.

"The great thing is, it's a new season now," Brey said tonight. "My first two years, we've had both ends of the spectrum going into this tournament. My first year, we didn't finish real strong and we played great against Xavier in the first round. Last year, we did finish pretty strong in the Big East tournament and we played very well against Charlotte in the first round.

"I think that's something our program has hung its hat on. When we get to this point, we know it's a clean slate."

Notre Dame had not made the NCAA tournament for 11 years before Brey, the Washington area native and former Duke assistant, moved to South Bend from Delaware in 2000. This season, the Irish continued rolling, to an 18-3 record that included consecutive victories in December over Marquette, Maryland and Texas -- the latter two in the BB&T Classic at MCI Center. But only a two-point victory over Pittsburgh has distinguished their stretch run.

As a result, Brey has worked the team hard since returning to campus last Thursday night from New York following its loss to St. John's in the Big East tournament. The Irish scrimmaged last Friday and Sunday, and worked out at an area high school today before shooting around this evening in the Dome. They missed 10 of their first 11 shots against St. John's and fell too far behind, at 51-28, to rally for victory despite a valiant effort.

They have been plagued recently by slow starts, and have been emphasizing defense and rebounding in practice. "There are some things we've got to do better -- on the defensive end of the floor and the backboard," Brey said.

"We've got to contain them from the outside," said 6-foot-6 senior Matt Carroll, Notre Dame's leading scorer. "We've got to play better defense against them."

"Just as long as we come out and execute what we've preached and practiced throughout the whole season, I think we'll be fine," said sophomore guard Chris Thomas, who played on two Indiana high school state championship teams with Indianapolis Pike. "I'm 3-0 in the Dome here. Coming out today, I felt really confident. I felt good about our guys."

The Notre Dame players had their heads shaven or hair clipped extremely short Tuesday night "as a sign of team unity" and a sign of "respect" for American troops poised to enter war in Iraq, Thomas said.

Two victories here would put Notre Dame in the round of 16 for the first time since 1987.

"You don't want to look too far ahead, although that is a goal of ours, to get ahead," said 6-8 senior Dan Miller, the transfer from Maryland. "Our dream since day one has been to get to that next weekend" of the tournament, said Thomas.

"That's what this group talked about in the summer, playing on the second weekend," Brey said. "We have an unbelievable challenge against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. But we have kind of looked at this as our own little mini-tournament down here in Indianapolis. Instead of looking at the whole bracket, we've got a little four-team tournament down here and we'll see if we're good enough to win the four-team tournament."

Coach Mike Brey has had some unpleasant moments lately, but has won a first-round game in NCAA tournament past two years.