By TOM COYNE
AP Sports Writer
SOUTH BEND -- Seventh-ranked Notre Dame already has been through a lot this year, traveling to Ireland and Hawaii, playing No. 8 Texas and top-ranked North Carolina on consecutive nights and seeing star Luke Harangody fall ill with pneumonia.
All those challenges, though, probably will seem like the easy part of the schedule when the season is over. The hard part is just beginning.
The Fighting Irish (9-2) are about to open Big East play.
"Everyone had better have their seat belts on because this is going to be an unbelievable ride. But I love this group to go through it," Irish coach Mike Brey said. "It's going to be tested again and again."
The Big East, led by No. 2 Connecticut and No. 3 Pittsburgh, has seven teams ranked in the Top 25, with West Virginia and Marquette sitting just outside the rankings. The Irish, who already have played three teams in the Top 25, could face as many as 11 ranked teams in their remaining 19 regular-season games.
"It's like the mini-NBA," forward Zach Hillesland said. "All these teams can play, and top to bottom you can't take anybody lightly because everybody has players that are capable of carrying their team on any particular night."
The Big East roller coaster got started Monday night with No. 11 Georgetown surprising Connecticut with a 74-63 victory in Hartford, opening the game with an 18-3 run.
"I think there are going to be a lot of nights like that in our league," said Brey, the Big East coach of the year the past two seasons.
The Irish begin Big East play with two road games, just the second time that's happened since Notre Dame joined the league in 1995. They open league play Wednesday night against DePaul (8-5), then travel to face St. John's (9-3) at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
Hillesland said the Irish have been eager for conference play to begin since a 67-62 loss to Ohio State on Dec. 6.
"You kind of want to get back out and start testing yourself again," he said. "So we're glad certainly for the Big East to be here. It's a thing where every team is going to give you a good fight. Especially with our ranking, now we're going to have a bigger target on our back."
That hasn't been the case in recent years. The Irish were 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 season they were picked to finish fourth.
Brey has spent much of the season warning the Irish to make sure they are psychologically ready for league play. He's warned them they are unlikely to go 14-4 as they did last season, saying the conference is just too difficult.
"How you bounce back after tough nights will determine who gets the NCAA bids and the byes in the Big East tournament," Brey said.
The Irish will likely find out in January how well they bounce back when they play at No. 18 Louisville (8-2) and at No. 13 Syracuse, then face Connecticut and Marquette at home before playing at No. 3 Pittsburgh (12-0), a tough five-game stretch.
Brey thinks his veteran team is ready for the challenges ahead. The Irish are led by Harangody, last season's Big East player of the year. He is averaging 22.7 points and 12 rebounds per game even though he's still not happy with his conditioning after missing two games a month ago with pneumonia.
Kyle McAlarney, ninth in the league in scoring at 17.2 points per game, leads the conference with 49 3-pointers. Tory Jackson is second in the league with 5.8 assists a game.
The Irish also have another weapon: They are the first Big East team to go undefeated at home in consecutive seasons and need three more wins at the Joyce Center to break the league record of 20 straight home wins set by Pittsburgh over three seasons ending in 2004.
Harangody, who has never lost at home, said the Irish hope to keep the streak going all season.
"We know it's going to be difficult to do that again this year, but that's one of our goals," he said.
Mainly, though, the Irish are just eager for conference play to get started.
"This is what we've been waiting for," McAlarney said.