Notre Dame men look for answers to slow starts

Pressure building for Notre Dame men

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- A brief burst of beautiful basketball when all five on the floor cut and moved and passed and defended and talked and operated as one was supposed to be the blueprint for Notre Dame on its first voyage through the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Unable to since flip that switch of teamwork and togetherness and toughness early in halves has seen the Irish stagger out of the conference gate with consecutive losses. It’s reached a point where Wednesday’s game at Maryland (10-7, 2-2) carries a whole lot of weight.

“This is a huge, huge game for us,” said Irish captain Eric Atkins. “Probably one of the biggest games of the year. We really need this one.”

Need it badly. It wasn’t supposed to start like this for the Irish (10-6, 1-2). Not after Notre Dame stared down a 10-point deficit with 11 minutes left then did almost everything right against the then-No. 7 team in the nation (Duke) in its first-ever league game. They ran crisp offense; they dug in on defense. They answered any Blue Devil run with something special of its own.

Sluggish starts to second halves have since surfaced. Three nights after opening on such a memorable note, Notre Dame trailed North Carolina State by three at half, then was down by seven in less than three minutes. On Saturday in its first league road game against Georgia Tech, Notre Dame allowed a four-point deficit to swell to 11 in less than four minutes. The Irish were down by as many as 15 in the second half before twice taking the lead but being unable to close it out.

Those struggles have bled into the start of the game. Notre Dame trailed 6-0 less than 120 seconds after the opening tip Saturday and by double digits (14-4) in just over four minutes.

“We’ve got to be more consistent for both halves,” said senior captain Garrick Sherman. “It’s a 40-minute game.”

Understanding that, the Irish have had chances at victory in each of their first three league games. But bad offense cost Notre Dame against North Carolina State. Bad defense did it in against Georgia Tech.

Not starting halves healthy has made the Irish task that much tougher. Do it again Wednesday and getting to the break-even point in league play may not happen.

“It’s just a matter of fighting at the beginning,” said junior captain Pat Connaughton. “It’s pretty remarkable the holes that we’ve fought out of, but you put yourselves in those holes, you’re not always going to come out on top.

“We need to start the game like we finish games.”

To do that, Connaughton and fellow captains Atkins and Sherman need to open with a bit more trust of the other two starters — whoever they may be. Irish coach Mike Brey believes his main three might be trying to do a little too much too early. Quick shots and bad decisions have followed. The result has been too many disjointed and empty offensive possessions, too many defensive breakdowns when a stop is required. When the offensive possessions suffer, the ball and the Irish stop moving. When the defense lags, loose balls and rebounds go the other way.

“It’s really small things when it comes down to it,” Atkins said, “But it becomes big things at the end of games.”

Get everyone involved early in halves, and the Irish may find more flow on both ends. Fall into another early hole, and everything on the scouting report that the Irish aim to do gets shredded.

“Digging out of a hole is hard and exhausting,” Brey said.

A search for the right combination of five commenced in late-December and continues as January nears its midway point. Sophomore forward Austin Burgett (a career-high 11 points with five rebounds in 21 active minutes) and freshman guard Steve Vasturia (five points, five rebounds in a career-high 23 minutes) each played well in Saturday’s five-point loss at Georgia Tech. They offer the option to possibly field a sixth different starting combination this season.

Brey might slot them into the other two spots in the starting lineup opposite his main three of Atkins, Connaughton and Sherman. It wouldn’t necessarily mean a demotion for sophomore Zach Auguste and freshman Demetrius Jackson. It would allow both, who have been inconsistent of late, a chance to see and impact the game from a different perspective.

Regardless of how Notre Dame starts in its new road black uniforms during Maryland’s “White Out” home opener, every available scholarship player in the rotation will see time. That number only was eight Saturday as fifth-year senior power forward Tom Knight remained home from Atlanta after suffering a sprained ankle Thursday in practice. Knight’s ankle is improving, but he has since been hit by the flu. That combination of injury and illness kept him home from this trip and throws into question his status for Sunday’s home game against Virginia Tech.

Knight’s unavailability should have opened the door for sophomore Eric Katenda, but the power forward from Paris who’s had nothing but hard luck with injuries from almost the day he signed with Notre Dame also is unavailable. Katenda only recently returned to practice on a limited basis after experiencing lingering pain in a knee that underwent microfracture surgery in the fall.

No Knight and no Katenda means a possible chance for freshman Austin Torres. The former Penn standout remains on a five-year plan, but is on the fringe of the rotation with the limited numbers.

“He’s always on the ready,” Brey said.

Now it’s time for the Irish to be the same to start a half.

TNoie@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6153 Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton, left, puts up a shot against Georgia Tech's Jason Morris, center, and Marcus Georges-Hunt, right, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/DAVID GOLDMAN)