Notre Dame men's basketball - After home losses, ND in must-get mode

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS - Operating off what the travel itinerary and the next game on the schedule said, the Notre Dame men’s basketball team boarded a bus Friday afternoon and headed south.

Some success Saturday would go a long way toward making sure the rest of the Irish season doesn’t keep moving in the same direction.

What was already going to be a tough task for a team still trying to figure out who they are and what they have has become even tougher following another home loss earlier in the week. Needing to feel good about itself heading into the third-annual Crossroads Classic against Indiana (8-2) at Hoosier-heavy Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Notre Dame (7-3) instead lost a second non-conference home game Wednesday for the first time in 10 seasons after North Dakota State simply was better in all phases.

Now with a chance of mustering some momentum with a quality non-league win against a quality opponent on national television, Notre Dame must figure out how to keep from having to again pick up the pieces after another loss.

“We just gotta play, get our heads clear and play as hard as we can,” said power forward Garrick Sherman. “We just have to be ready. We’ve got a big game. It’s a good opportunity.”

In some ways, it’s a must-get opportunity following home losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State. Losing at No. 23 Iowa earlier this month in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge can be easily explained. Losing twice at home cannot.

Teams worthy of NCAA tournament bids don’t lose multiple non-league home games. A win Saturday would be a great way to repair a wounded NCAA resume. Even in mid-December, March already matters.

“We’re not focused on that right now,” said Sherman. “We have a lot of things to worry about.”

Like everything. Notre Dame is struggling because it wasn’t good at either end of the floor against North Dakota State. The Irish couldn’t guard much in man or zone. They couldn’t get going on offense. They couldn’t do much right for most of a frustrating night.

Against an Indiana team that likes to attack in transition with length and athleticism, it has to start on defense and from the start. But can Notre Dame be better defensively?

“Of course,” said junior co-captain Pat Connaughton. “We’ve shown it in the past.”

In games this week against Bryant and North Dakota State, Notre Dame allowed the opposition to get too comfortable too early. Indifferent defense forced the Irish to dig in and be better to dig out of holes. Another sluggish start against Indiana may already be too late to work out of any early deficit.

“You’re always playing catch-up and that’s not something you want to do ever,” Connaughton said. “It comes down to that mental focus to start the game.”

As much as the defense needs work, the Irish offense is in a serious rut. The ball hasn’t moved as well as it should; the extra passes often aren’t made. When it goes into the post, it either doesn’t come back out or is turned over. Since scoring 93 points at Iowa, Notre Dame has hit for 80, 70 and 69 the last three games with field goal percentage slippage of 49.1, 40 and 35.7. After just seven turnovers at Iowa, Notre Dame has averaged 10 the last three games.

There has been no flow, but a lot of frustration.

To get back into a better rhythm following three games in five days, coach Mike Brey planned to spend a chunk of Friday not resting what could be tired legs and minds, but getting up and down the floor in 5-on-5 situations.

The saturated game schedule left the Irish little practice time, and caused an offense that was humming in Iowa City to lose its collective confidence. When the points haven’t come, the defense has suffered. The Irish have trouble guarding, have trouble rebounding, have trouble doing just about everything.

That better change. Soon.

“You always try to separate the two, but it’s hard when the shots aren’t falling,” said Sherman, who has finished with his first two career double-doubles for points and rebounds in the last two games. “You just have to find a way to get past that and play hard defensively and make it count.”

As the Irish gathered Friday at their downtown hotel, Brey wanted to see a certain sign he saw 11 days earlier when they met in their hotel in Coralville, Iowa the night before what was the biggest game to date. Brey saw something different in his squad that night, a certain swagger, a confidence that they were ready to answer Iowa’s challenge. They knew it was a big game. They knew it was a tough environment. They embraced opportunity and delivered a big effort.

Brey also planned to show the Irish some of how they worked in the second half, when they scored 50 points, shot 54 percent from the field, committed only one turnover and competed at a high level.

“Just pull some clips of us at Iowa just balling on the offensive end,” he said. “We just need to get rolling. Many of the guys on this team have delivered in those atmospheres.”

Time to do it again.

Notre Dame's Garrick Sherman (11) collides with North Dakota State's Marshall Bjorklund (42), right, on a rebound during the NCAA men's basketball game between Notre Dame and North Dakota State on Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2013, inside the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN