Notre Dame men's basketball: Effort, energy could help ND


South Bend Tribune

Drop a holiday into the normal work-week routine and it allows many to ease off the accelerator during times they would otherwise be on the grind.

Not so for the Notre Dame men's basketball team five games into what has been an early-season series of starts and stops, of flow and frustration.

Following the NCAA-mandated off day Monday, the Irish (4-1) return to practice Tuesday for three days of important work. A scrimmage is tentatively set Thanksgiving Day. Once that's completed, there's no time to get fat on turkey and all the trimmings.

Notre Dame has two days (Friday and Saturday) to prepare for Sunday's home game against Cornell. That opens a two-week stretch of six games — three each week — that may define the direction of this Notre Dame season.

The Irish have experienced their share of good (they won their last two games by an average of 24 points), bad (they float through too many halves of indifference) and ugly (a 13-point win by Indiana State was the most lopsided non-league home loss for Notre Dame in 18 seasons).

Mike Brey has shuffled his starting lineup, has juggled the rotation plenty and has not settled on a core group that can best carry forth the cause.

Here are five questions that have surfaced since the regular season started Nov. 8 with a win over Miami (Ohio), which has since lost to Division III Wilmington (Ohio) College.

Who's got a match?

Every Irish home game starts the same way. The Purcell Pavilion house lights dim, a series of highlights from past Irish greatness flashes across the video board above center court, music gets pumping and the five starters are introduced while offering various handshakes, high-fives and jump bumps to teammates.

And then the game begins and all that energy and emotion the starters used when they heard their name yelled out is bottled up and locked away in some arena closet.

Eliminate the first two games — Miami (Ohio) and Stetson simply were overmatched and not ready for the moment — and Notre Dame has labored through the early parts of the last three home games with little life. Indiana State jumped to a double-digit lead before anyone on the floor and many in the stands knew what had happened. Santa Clara raced to a five-point advantage and was on the verge of pushing toward 10 before the Irish got serious. Even Army competed for a portion of the first half before seeing it unravel.

The collective response from the Irish in each case was ... crickets.

This is a veteran team that understands how to handle its business, but do they always need to be all business? Someone needs to do something — race into the fourth row of (empty) seats chasing a loose ball, finish a fast break with an alley-oop dunk, block a shot into the (empty) student section — to muster a little more life. Show some fury. Have some fire.

On Sunday, Notre Dame struggled early to control the backboard (Army held a 16-6 rebounding advantage), which led to struggles on the offensive end (the Irish opened 1-for-6 from the floor, 0-for-4 from 3) which saw their collective energy sucked down the drain.

Afterward, Brey was downright dour, even more than he had been the previous Sunday after being whacked by Indiana State. He was bothered by his team's energy and effort level in the first half. He let them know at halftime.

Notre Dame responded by shooting 75 percent from the field and scoring 60 points in the second half. Still, they operated more like professors than basketball players.

A start like Sunday will find Notre Dame down big numbers on Dec. 3 at Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and then a long climb back to the break-even mark on Dec. 14 against Indiana at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The Irish are too veteran a team to play with such sorry energy. They have to understand that their emotional fires have to be lit from the opening tip. If not, there may be some very long nights and lopsided scores on the horizon.

•Can Garrick Sherman carry through his non-league effort for the long term?

Notre Dame's most consistent low-post presence since the start of practice, Sherman went for 16 points and eight rebounds against Santa Clara before 19 points and seven rebounds against Army. Best of all, he finally seemed to be settled, not in such a hurry to make something happen. He still committed five turnovers but was able to work through those miscues and give the Irish a consistent low-post presence.

He plays more like a guard trapped in a big man's body — baskets that should see him tear down the rim are instead finished with soft kisses off the backboard — but he's earned his spot by earning the trust of the Irish perimeter. Guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant and swingman Pat Connaughton are most comfortable with the 6-foot-11, 255-pounder patrolling the paint. For Brey, that's good enough to lean heavily on Sherman.

But we've traveled this road last season. Sherman was really good in non-league play (9.1 ppg., 4.2 rpg., 18.1 mpg.) before being really bad (4.6 ppg., 2.5 rpg., 12.6 mpg.) in league play. That cannot happen with so many concerns about the collective play of the power forwards still lingering.

Tests against three Big Ten teams are coming quickly. What better time for Sherman, who knows the league well after two seasons at Michigan State, to show he's a different player — a better player — than the one that crumbled early in league play a year ago.

What's the rotation situation?

As unsettled as one's digestive track after too much time at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

There are games (second half of Santa Clara) when everything flows smoothly and others (too many to pick) when it looks like Brey's still grab-bagging to see what and who works best.

Notre Dame initially wanted to play big with power forwards Tom Knight and Sherman in the starting lineup. Didn't work. The Irish busted open the Santa Clara game by going quick with a smaller lineup. That worked well, but foul trouble and other early problems prohibited Brey from getting back to it against Army. Instead, mixing and matching returned to include seldom-used freshman guard Steve Vasturia.

With six games in 14 days closing quickly, it may be time for the Irish to settle on a core rotation that can get some confidence playing together and move forward toward Atlantic Coast Conference play. Eight Irish each have averaged at least 12.8 minutes. There have been times when it seems the rotation is too cluttered and out of synch. Brey may just be a coach who can best do more with less.

Anyone want to start and play major minutes?

One starting spot has been treated like the proverbial hot potato. Knight had the first chance to keep it. He then offered rebounding totals of four, two and one in the first three games. Knight started Friday against Santa Clara, but then played seven minutes without a rebound in the first half. Brey had seen enough.

Sophomore Austin Burgett started the second half and was active and aggressive and played with a bounce that just wasn't right with Knight. That led to Burgett making his first career start Sunday against Army.

It didn't go as planned. Burgett fell into foul trouble, which led to a series of defensive breakdowns. He never did get his game on track and finished with two points and four rebounds which were offset by two turnovers and four fouls.

Afterward, Brey wondered aloud if anyone wanted the spot. Burgett will get to work through his starting/fouling pains. If that ultimately doesn't work, maybe the Irish downshift and go with freshman guard Demetrius Jackson.

Other than Sherman, he was the most impressive Irish last weekend with his best two games. Jackson set career highs for minutes both nights playing 23 and 24.

There's a reason Jackson was a McDonald's All-American and we're starting to see it in heavier doses. He also may be the emotional and energetic spark this veteran group lacks.

What one player could be key as the Irish move forward?

Having shed the protective glove last weekend on the still-healing broken left hand he suffered in preseason camp, sophomore power forward Zach Auguste quietly took an important step the last two games.

Auguste hustled his way into four points and a blocked shot in seven short minutes during the first half of Friday's game against Santa Clara. Lost in the rotation shuffle when the Irish turned to small ball, Auguste played only 60 seconds in the second half. In the past, he'd have been so tied up wondering about his role that he'd be of little use next time out.

This time, he wasn't.

Auguste returned Sunday and was active and aggressive, finishing with 14 points (one shy of his career high) and five rebounds in 14 minutes. There's so much to work with for Auguste, arguably the team's most complete big man. He can be such a key guy, but may still be too young to comprehend it.

Opportunity isn't knocking on his door, it's banging on it and threatening to kick it down.

Will he finally understand that it's OK to answer?

Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson tries to break away from a couple of army defenders during first half action at Purcell Pavilion on Sunday November 24, 2013. SBT Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES