Notre Dame men's basketball: ND power forwards eager to rebound

South Bend Tribune

No amount of film study, coach's counsel or soul searching can cure what ills Notre Dame fifth-year senior power forwards Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman.

Benched for myriad reasons Sunday as Notre Dame lost at home for the first time in November during the 14-year tenure of coach Mike Brey, Knight and Sherman had only one way to get their games back on track — shut the door to The Pit and get after it Wednesday during a rare 7 a.m. practice.

“We're not here to just play; we need to compete,” Knight said before a second workout Wednesday afternoon. “We competed our butts off. Hopefully that's something that can continue.”

A brief team film session that was held at 6:30 Monday morning hammered home a simple point to both — rebound, rebound, rebound. Brey was encouraged when the two starters returned to work this week with a renewed energy and finer focus.

“They pounded the backboard,” Brey said. “When you get into bounce-back mode, you need to compete. There's no drill that's going to help them.”

Both saw their confidence collapse in the 83-70 loss to Indiana State. Neither played the final six minutes of the second half. Sherman's day started badly and got worse. He committed a turnover 91 seconds in and had three in the first 3:18. Knight drifted through another first half without an offensive rebound. He allowed an easy basket to start the second half and fumbled the ball away on the first Irish possession. That parked Knight for the final 19:21.

The efforts each offered are unacceptable.

“We've got to play with a fire under our butts,” Knight said. “We can't take anything from anyone. We've got to come out the best we can every game and compete, especially the big guys.”

Both were reminded this week that they can keep it simple and not play like they have to be the second coming of former power forward Jack Cooley, who was a double-double machine (32) the previous two seasons. As bad as both were Sunday, they have to be good for the Irish to be good. Brey's not about to bench the bigs in favor of more four- and five-guard lineups.

Nothing flows offensively until one of them gets a low-post touch, and both get on the glass.

“It's huge for us for them to be active,” said senior co-captain Eric Atkins. “They're big bodies that can really affect the game.”

And not necessarily by scoring. For the offense to run smoothly, both have to be better at keeping defenses honest by not trying to score it quickly the first time they touch the ball. Kick it out. Reposition for another touch. Move it quickly to free another Irish for a high-percentage chance.

All that allows the offense to flow, and allows them to be more active on the backboard.

So far, so good.

“Tom and Sherm have reacted really well,” Brey said. “They've been pretty good and played with a little edge that I don't know if you could create without a loss.”

Knowing there is no Cooley to handle the low-post heavy lifting and mindful that the Irish perimeter cannot carry that burden puts a little added expectation on Knight (2.3 rpg.) and Sherman (6.0). But that's fine.

“Some pressure is good,” Brey said, “because you've got to deliver.”

Untapped weapon

In seasons past as the offense was rolling early or needed something to get in gear, the Irish could count on jumping quickly into the bonus, which led to a parade to the free throw line and a whole bunch of easy points.

Nothing's been easy about that this season.

Through three games, the Irish are shooting a solid 73.9 percent from the foul line, but have attempted only 46 free throws, two more than their opponents. Heading into Wednesday's action, Notre Dame was one of seven Atlantic Coast Conference teams to have played exactly three regular-season games. None of the other six teams had attempted as few free throws as the Irish. Pittsburgh, in comparison, made 82 trips to the free throw line.

The Irish attempted 59 free throws, including 30 in the opener against Evansville, three games into last season.

“We haven't gotten to the line,” Brey said. “We're going to go shoot a good clip, but we haven't gotten there enough.”

Reasons for that are twofold. A lack of offensive rebounds (the Irish have 30 through games) has severely limited second-chance opportunities. Notre Dame also hasn't probed the defenses with drives as much as Brey would like. Subtract guards Jerian Grant (a team-high 19 free throws) and Atkins (14 attempts) from the equation and the eight other Irish in the rotation have shot a combined 11 free throws.

Too much time

Notre Dame opened the regular season with two games — against Miami (Ohio) and Stetson — in less than 48 hours. The Irish then had six days away from game action before Sunday's 13-point home loss to Indiana State.

“I'm not going to blame that as the reason we lost,” Atkins said, “but it was a long time to wait.”

Notre Dame exhausted every offseason angle — Brey even toyed with the idea of slotting the second exhibition game into that week — to stay busy between Stetson and Indiana State. But no opponent wanted to travel to Northern Indiana for a mid-week visit.

“It may not have been the best of rhythms, there's no question, that we didn't play,” Brey said.

Brey cut himself short. Further comment would have sounded like he was trying to downplay the dominance of Indiana State, which did whatever it wanted nearly the entire game.

“They were good; they were rolling,” Brey said. “We were on a yo-yo the whole day.”

The Irish dealt with another gap in their schedule this week. Following Sunday's loss, Notre Dame (2-1) won't play again until late Friday (9 p.m.) against Santa Clara. Tip-off follows a Notre Dame volleyball match against Virginia and cannot come soon enough.

“There's a little more sense of urgency, which is interesting in November,” Brey said. “Friday's a long way away.”

Notre Dame's Tom Knight, right, moves by Tusculum's JD Miller during the men's basketball game on Friday, November 1, 2013, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN