Notre Dame men’s basketball: Irish have something to prove
IOWA CITY, Iowa -- An early-season loss lightened a bandwagon load that had assembled to accompany the Notre Dame men's basketball team on its inaugural journey through the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The non-conference setback Nov. 17 to Indiana State bounced Notre Dame from the national rankings after it spent the season's first two weeks at No. 21. It also allowed many to wonder why the now-unranked Irish (5-1) would even bother catching their charter flight to Iowa in advance of Tuesday's game against the No. 23 Hawkeyes (7-1) in the 15th annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
“I feel like everybody is just counting us out with them being ranked,” said Irish co-captain Eric Atkins. “That's what it seems like ever since we stopped being ranked and them playing so well down in the Bahamas.”
Iowa finished second to Villanova in the Thanksgiving weekend Battle 4 Atlantis, where the Hawkeyes also erased a 15-point deficit with 15 minutes remaining before beating Xavier in overtime to open tournament play.
Staggered by the disappearing act against Indiana State, the Irish have since won three straight and are coming off their most impressive performance — six scored double figures as the Irish finished with 28 assists and shot 54.3 percent in a 101-67 victory over Cornell.
“We need to start playing well,” said junior co-captain Pat Connaughton. “That Indiana State game has been eating at us. We've been looking forward to this Iowa game.”
The Irish believe they have something to prove to just about everyone — to the fans that have sprained ankles jumping off the bandwagon, to one another, even to coach Mike Brey, who made practice anything but easy since the Indiana State game.
“Coach has really challenged us and guys are up for the challenge,” said senior guard Jerian Grant. “We're ready to show Coach Brey that we can play.”
On Monday, Brey downplayed any notion he's challenged his players to be better, saying instead that he has been more in “teaching mode” than “challenge mode.” Still, with the season's biggest test to date here, Brey has no idea what team will show up.
“This nucleus has done it before, but this team has never done it before,” Brey said. “Who are we going to be in that atmosphere? Are we going to be poised? Are we going to be mentally tough?”
Atkins believes the Irish are ready to play with the passion and poise and purpose they seldom showed against Indiana State.
“We're going to go in there and attack them from the jump,” he said. “We just want to prove to ourselves that we have what it takes.”
Save for the occasional injury or illness, Notre Dame's starting lineup seldom has changed this time of year during Brey's 14-year tenure.
When freshman guard Demetrius Jackson made his first career start Sunday, it marked the third starting lineup in the first six Irish games. In comparison, Notre Dame fielded three different starting looks during the 27-7 season of 2010-11.
Sunday's top group — Jackson paired with fellow guards Atkins and Grant, swingman Connaughton and power forward Garrick Sherman — is expected to again start Tuesday. As for the rest of the games this month? That's anyone's guess, even the head coach's.
“I'm still searching,” Brey said. “Is this a season where our lineup changes more than ever before game-to-game or week-to-week or segment-to-segment? I'm open to that.”
Brey also is open to keeping everyone in the rotation wondering. Throughout a good chunk of November, a weekly or post-game press conference didn't pass without Brey talking up the development of Austin Burgett to the point where the sophomore stepped into the starting lineup for the Army game.
Burgett played 15 minutes in a reserve role Sunday while sophomore Zach Auguste now is the first big off the bench. Senior power forward Tom Knight has gone from early-season starter to odd man out. Freshmen V.J. Beachem, and Steve Vasturia also are on the outside of the rotation looking in but reminded daily by Brey to stay ready.
Brey insists there's little chance he'll settle the rotation anytime soon.
“We're going to keep looking around at this thing,” he said. “The more I've thought about our team, this could be a revolving door. If you play well in the first half, you may play in the second half. You don't play well in the first half, maybe you don't even play in the second half.
Running on fumes
The five-day Thanksgiving trip to the Bahamas and long trek home Sunday left Iowa with only one full day to prepare for Notre Dame.
Iowa lost in overtime to Villanova in the tournament championship game, which didn't end until Sunday around 12:30 a.m. The Hawkeyes didn't return to campus until close to 4:30 p.m. South Bend time after its charter flight off the island experienced mechanical difficulties.
It's not as if the Hawkeyes would have spent much time on the practice floor after three games in three days — two of which went to overtime.
“Our guys were exhausted,” said coach Fran McCaffery. “They're in great shape physically, but they were mentally exhausted. They needed a day away from it.”
With such a saturated schedule, very little time was spent last weekend on the Irish. Iowa's scout of Notre Dame, which normally would have been in full swing early Sunday afternoon, didn't get started until Monday. At noon, McCaffery was in his corner office of the Carver-Hawkeyes Arena coaches' complex with assistant Kirk Speraw breaking down film of Notre Dame's victory over Santa Clara on Nov. 22.
“You have to be impressed with that team,” McCaffery said of the Irish. “This team has a lot of weapons. They're going to do what they do (and) they're going to do it well.
“You're going to have to beat them and that's hard for a lot of teams do.”