By TOM COYNE
AP Sports Writer
SOUTH BEND -- Coach Mike Brey laughed briefly when asked whether he was turning Notre Dame into a basketball school, then turned to Digger Phelps.
"You want to answer that?" Brey asked the ESPN analyst and former Notre Dame coach, who was sitting in with reporters at the news conference.
There's no question Brey has the Fighting Irish reaching heights not seen since Phelps was in his heyday, when Notre Dame was ending UCLA's NCAA-record winning streak at 88 games in 1974 and making its only Final Four appearance in 1978.
The Irish, led by returning Big East player of the year Luke Harangody, open the season ranked No. 9, their first preseason top 10 ranking since 1980, when they were No. 10. The last time the Irish opened a season ranked higher was in 1979, when they were No. 3.
But Notre Dame, home of seven Heisman Trophy winners, eight football national championships and Touchdown Jesus, becoming a basketball school? Brey, who knows the Irish football team hasn't won a national title since 1988, wasn't about to add to football coach Charlie Weis' headaches by proclaiming that.
There's no doubt, though, times are better for the basketball program. In eight seasons under Brey, the Irish have been to the NCAA tournament five times and the NIT three times, while the football team has posted three losing seasons and three coaches.
"I'm happy with the momentum of our program and how we're out there nationally," Brey said, deftly avoiding answering the question that even Phelps wouldn't touch. "There's a buzz about us. That's a good thing."
Everyone except forward Rob Kurz returns from last season's 25-8 squad that led the Big East in scoring at 79 points a game and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Harangody, just the second player to lead the Big East in scoring (23.3) and rebounding (11.3) in the same season, hopes to be even better this season, improving both his footwork inside and his outside shooting. Harangody, though, is hoping one of his biggest improvements will come in how he reacts to adversity.
"Being able to get past a mistake. Becoming more emotionally balanced, like when I do make a turnover or I do miss a shot, I can look right by it and get on to the next play," he said.
He also has to be prepared to kick it out to a teammate when he gets double- or triple-teamed. While Harangody is expected to key Notre Dame inside, the Irish will count on Kyle McAlarney from the outside.
McAlarney, who along with Harangody was a first-team All-Big East pick last year, was second on the team in scoring last year, averaging 15.1 points while setting a school record with 108 3-pointers. He's joined in the backcourt by 6-3 Tory Jackson, who averaged 8 points and led the league in assists for a second straight season.
Other key players are forwards Ryan Ayers (7.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, Zach Hillesland (6.1 points, 5.2 rebounds) and Luke Zeller (4.5 points, and 2.2 rebounds) and guard Jonathan Peoples (3.3 points, 1.6 rebounds). The team has four seniors, five juniors and no freshmen.
The Irish have thrived the past two seasons in their role as underdogs, being picked to finish 11th in the Big East two years ago and ninth last season. They finished fourth during the 2006-07 season and tied for second last year.
This year, as one of four league teams ranked in the top 10, they face the challenge of playing as favorites. The Irish say it won't affect them.
"I think this team is smart enough to know that regardless of where we're picked or the kind of hype that surrounds the team, we still have to go out and work and achieve everything and earn everything," Hillesland said.
The Irish are playing their most ambitious schedule in years, possibly playing eight games against teams ranked in the top seven in the preseason poll if they are successful in the EA Sports Maui Invitational and advance to face No. 7 Texas and top-ranked North Carolina.
They also have two games each against No. 2 Connecticut and No. 3 Louisville and games at No. 4 UCLA, at No. 5 Pittsburgh, at home against No. 16 Marquette, at home against No. 22 Georgetown and at home against No. 23 Villanova.
McAlarney is confident that if the Irish play up to their potential it will be one of the most successful seasons ever at Notre Dame.
"We have a sign up in the locker room that says, 'If we stay in character, our dreams can become reality,"' he said. "That's something we're going to keep coming back to, and hopefully it will turn out good for us."