Notre Dame men's basketball: Expect inconsistency from building Irish

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Growing pains look a lot like what Notre Dame’s men’s basketball team experienced Tuesday night.

Flashes of brilliance. Stretches of inconsistency. A few woeful unforced errors. And an obvious lack of a strength that can be counted on from one game to the next.

It all added up to a 77-70 loss to North Carolina State.

The game was close enough to be interesting, but even down one possession in the final few minutes, winning seemed a distant proposition for the Irish.

This was one mountain a team still searching for the right combination couldn’t climb.

None of the 3,000 or so fans who braved the frigid temps had to be warned not to storm the floor this time. Many of them bailed long before the final buzzer.

After Saturday’s stunning win over Duke, Irish guard Eric Atkins told fans they should expect that sort of victory and not treat with a floor-storming zest.

Well, maybe Tuesday night was more what fans should expect from the re-incarnation of the Irish.

A little bit good. A little bit bad. A lot of inconsistency.

The loss of offensive mainstay Jerian Grant, an academic casualty, was painfully obvious. The Irish rotation was lopsided.

Garrick Sherman’s 21 points and a career-high 18 rebounds made a statement. Then there are youngsters Demetrius Jackson, V.J. Beachem, Austin Burgett and Steve Vasturia who combined for seven points, four rebounds and five turnovers.

Hardly numbers that can make a positive impact.

“A lot of times, we go to the high-ball screen, when we needed something, we’d go to Jerian,” Sherman said. “Eric’s (14 points, five assists) taking over that role. It’s a new role for him. He’s going to grow into it.”

Atkins isn’t the only one needing a growth spurt — soon. The rest of the youthful Irish, who may have been pressed into service beyond their years and confidence level, need to find some maturity quickly before being devoured by a grueling Atlantic Coast Conference schedule.

“It’s tough,” Sherman said of getting the newbies to fit in. “It’s not an excuse. We have faith in everybody we put on the court.”

Sherman may have confidence in them, but they have to believe in themselves.

Two alarming statistics: Notre Dame turned the ball over 11 times and had just two steals.

Lack of hustle? A need for a nose for the ball? When did diving on the floor and getting a loose ball go out of style? Whatever, it’s not good.

“This one really hurts; especially being at home,” Sherman said. “This loss basically eliminates the win (over Duke) on Saturday.’’

So then, back to the drawing board, huh?

The university offered free jump-starts to fans whose vehicles didn’t start in the arctic post-game weather. The Irish should have taken advantage of the service after halftime. Down three at intermission, Notre Dame scored just 13 points in the first nine minutes of the second half and trailed the Wolfpack, 53-49.

Right there, the game was available for the taking.

With 14:15 left in the game, Tom Knight beat North Carolina State big man Jordan Vandenburg to the basket and jammed a dunk that cut the difference to 51-46. Notre Dame coach Mike Brey leapt from the bench and implored the crowd to amp up the noise.

Less than three minutes later, Knight wiggled free again. This time, he went for the exclamation-point slam, hit the back of the rim and came up empty and embarrassed.

Thus is the plight of a team on the build.

With about six minutes to play and the Irish trailing by a couple buckets, it got painful. Freshmen Jackson and Vasturia started playing like ... freshmen. Each committed a critical turnover.

Then, junior Pat Connaughton, a guy who knows better, played like a ... freshman. He sailed a pass over the Irish bench and lost the possession.

Too many wasted possessions.

It’s not like North Carolina State is anywhere near the elite of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Remember, this is a Wolfpack that, Saturday, jumped on Pittsburgh 17-2 to start the game and led by eight at the half before losing by 12 — at home.

N.C. State knows what crumbling is all about.

Not this time.

Insecurity folded first. New roles and new challenges made for a painful step.

Saturday’s next test at Georgia Tech will determine if it’s forward or backward.

Notre Dame guard Demetrius Jackson (23) works past North Carolina State guard Anthony Barber (2) during the second half of a NCAA mens college basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, at the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER