Notre Dame men have payback on their mind

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Asked too often to dissect how and why the Notre Dame men’s basketball season continues to slide sideways, the guys who really should know best are about out of answers.

Fresh from two consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference victories for the first time this winter, Notre Dame looked nothing like that confident and cohesive outfit Wednesday in a four-point loss at Miami (Fla.). Heading into Saturday’s game at No. 14 and league-leading Virginia (2 p.m.; ESPN2), the Irish could again lean on a laundry list of what to do to be better — rebound, get to loose balls, defend much better — for their third road game in seven days.

Three-time team captain Eric Atkins believes the Irish would do well to do better in all those areas, but at this point in a long and trying season, it hinges on something more simple. Not only Saturday, but the other three remaining regular-season games and however long Notre Dame might linger at its first ACC tournament next month.

“It comes down to just us going out there and getting it done; that’s the bottom line,” Atkins said. “There’s too much of what does this guy have to do each game or what has to change.

“We just have to go out there and play and play hard.”

And play hard from the jump instead of falling into the familiar pattern of easing into another conference road game, letting the home team grow a comfortable lead before making it interesting. It happened at Georgia Tech, at Florida State, at Wake Forest and at Syracuse. It happened again Wednesday in Coral Gables. Notre Dame tumbled into a 14-point deficit in the first half, and then mustered some energy and some defensive stops and good offensive execution to twice get within one in the final 36 seconds.

Good, but not good enough. It’s been a familiar theme for Notre Dame (14-13; 5-9 ACC).

“We’ve got to set the tone early in the game,” said captain Tom Knight. “We’ve got to go out there and hit people, box out, go rebound, set some screens, get each other open. That’s pretty much what needs to happen.

“There’s not much to say.”

Certainly not much for anyone to say to get the Irish prepared to compete for Saturday’s start. Not after Virginia (22-5, 13-1) made it look way too easy late last month at Purcell Pavilion. Playing with the confidence and cohesion typically shown from so many previous Irish teams, the Cavaliers never trailed, led by as many as 24 and carved up a seemingly flat-footed and disjointed Irish team for 40 minutes. Virginia shot 53.8 percent from the field, scored 32 points in the paint and had 27 points off a season-high 20 Irish turnovers.

Irish coach Mike Brey eventually pulled the plug with 6:45 remaining. He benched his core guys and finished it out with underclassmen. When the final horn sounded on an outcome that had really long since been decided, the Irish were left with the season’s most lopsided loss, 68-53.

“We’re not used to getting embarrassed on our home court and that’s what they did,” Knight said. “We’re going to compete. We’re going to fight. We’re going to try and out-tough them and just beat them that way.”

For Notre Dame, it starts with the biggest guys around the basket. The power forward tandems of Zach Auguste and Garrick Sherman to start and Austin Burgett and Knight off the bench were big against Clemson and Boston College. The four went for 24 points and 22 rebounds against Clemson, 28 points and 18 rebounds against Boston College.

Against Miami, only Sherman scored as the bigs labored to seven points and five rebounds.

“For two games, we were really pretty good on that front line, and then (Wednesday), no,” Brey said. “We’re going to have to be better up front on that backboard to have a chance.”

There’s no secret to Virginia’s success. Offensively, the Cavaliers grind teams up by moving and cutting and screening and passing while making guys guard for the entire shot clock. They’ll then attack the glass for second and third chances, and then grind out another 35 seconds. Virginia also is the top defensive team in the league. None of its last four opponents has sniffed at least 60 points.

Long before top-ranked and previously undefeated Syracuse was upset at home Wednesday by Boston College, Brey pegged Virginia as the league’s best team. Nothing has changed his opinion. Except that the Cavaliers may have gotten better.

Gulp.

“They really know who they are,” Brey said. “When they’ve been down they’ve rallied because they believe. They’re confident. I would expect us to be really up for the challenge of trying to be better than we were here.”

While the Irish aim to rebound from another near-miss, freshman guard Demetrius Jackson looks to build off the most complete game of his collegiate career. Jackson missed the Clemson and Boston College contests after being forced by Brey to take a week to concentrate on his “academic habits.” The former Marian High School standout and McDonald’s All-American returned to practice Monday, then returned in a difference-making way against Miami.

Jackson came off the bench in the first half, but then started the second while playing 27 minutes. He finished with career highs for points (17), assists (five) and shot attempts (13). He played with a more determined demeanor seldom seen while trying to figure out where he fits this season.

Notre Dame needed a shot of adrenaline Wednesday, and Jackson offered it.

That energy could be enough to get him back in Saturday’s starting lineup. It may also be best to come off the bench.

“He handled his time away from us the right way and got his work done and then came back to us with a great frame of mind and was really good,” Brey said. “I think his head is great. Big for him. Big for us because we need him.

“We really could use that the rest of the way.”

Notre Dame's Eric Atkins goes up for a shot against Clemson's K.J. McDaniels (32) during their game Tuesday at Purcell Pavilion. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHO: Notre Dame (14-13, 5-9 ACC) vs. No. 14 Virginia (22-5, 13-1)

WHERE: John Paul Jones Arena (14,593), Charlottesville, Va.

WHEN: 2 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN2

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM)

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDInsider.

WORTH NOTING: Coming off Tuesday’s 57-53 victory at Virginia Tech, first-place Virginia has won 10-straight league games for the first time since 1981-82 and 13 of 14 overall. The Cavaliers last lost on Jan. 13 to Duke. ... Virginia leads the ACC in scoring defense (55.5 ppg.), field goal percentage defense (38.6) and rebounding margin (+6.8). ... The Cavaliers do not have a single player in the top 20 in scoring. ... Virginia is 12-2 at home, 6-0 in league play. ... The Cavaliers already have clinched a top-four seed in the ACC tournament. ... Virginia leads the all-time series 6-1. Notre Dame is 0-1 lifetime in Charlottesville, an 83-56 loss Jan. 18, 1992. ... Virginia is one of four repeat opponents for Notre Dame. ... Notre Dame is 1-3 against ranked teams with the win over Duke and losses to Iowa, Ohio State and Syracuse. ... The Irish are 1-7 on the road, 1-6 in league play. ... Second in the ACC in field goal percentage (50.8), Irish power forward Garrick Sherman is 9-for-27 (33.3 percent) from the field the last three games. Sherman’s current streak of three-straight games of fewer than 10 points is the longest of the season. ... The next Irish win will be No. 300 for coach Mike Brey at Notre Dame. Only Digger Phelps (393) and George Keogan (327) have won at least 300 games as Irish coaches. ... Brey is 0-4 lifetime against Virginia. ... The next league loss will mark the first time since 2008-09 that the Irish have double-digit league losses. ... This is the third road game in seven days for Notre Dame, which won Sunday at Boston College (73-69) and lost 71-64 Wednesday at Miami (Fla.). ... The Irish close the regular season with two of their last three at home starting Wednesday against Georgia Tech.

WORTH QUOTING: “We definitely want to go out there and prove something to ourselves. They handily beat us and we’re going to have to go out there and make a statement for ourselves.” — Notre Dame senior captain Eric Atkins on playing Virginia a second time this season.