Irish hoops poised to re-establish homecourt advantage

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

He remembers when seemingly nobody and nothing could touch them on their home court, when the win streak climbed earlier in his collegiate career toward 30 without a setback.

He remembers when a buzz would build around town, spill onto campus and even into the classrooms in the afternoon, all about the home game coming later that night. Fans would pack the stands while the student section on the west side would be ramped up and ready an hour before tip-off. There was so much energy in the building that warmups felt like the actual game.

He remembers all the home struggles of last season, when the feeling of invincibility slipped to vulnerability as team after team arrived and did as they pleased, then left with a win.

That, Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton promised after the Irish staggered through six home losses last season, had to stop. If Connaughton and fellow senior Jerian Grant were going to leave any legacy following their final year, it would start with being better, being unbeatable, at Purcell Pavilion.

Non-league snoozers against overwhelmed opponents or Wednesday’s high-octane test against No. 19 Michigan State (7:15 p.m., ESPN2) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Connaughton knows that for this season to be better than last, for these Irish to better than the previous group, they have to win at home.

Every. Single. Night.

No exceptions. No excuses.

Connaughton was a freshman in 2011-12 when Notre Dame’s 29-game home win streak was snapped by Connecticut. It was the lone Irish home loss that season. The following year, Notre Dame went 17-2 at Purcell. After going a combined 33-3 during Connaughton’s first two years, the Irish went 13-6 last year.

Unacceptable.

Time for the seniors to re-establish a tradition.

“We want the young guys, the sophomores and juniors that weren’t able to experience it, (to know) that we don’t lose in this building,” Connaughton said as the Irish prepared for their toughest home game to date. “That’s something we have to bring back to the Notre Dame culture.”

Prior to last season’s mid-November home loss to Indiana State, Notre Dame ranked second to only Kansas for home winning percentage since 2006-07. The Irish had gone 119-9 (92.9 percent), which also included a 45-game win streak.

Prior to Saturday’s home wipeout of Chicago State (a 48-point pasting), Notre Dame had slipped to seventh in the nation for home win percentage (89.8). Six losses last season – when it became just another gym — will do that. Any more cannot be tolerated for a team with designs on getting back to the NCAA tournament.

Want to play in March? Win at home in December.

“Winning at home is extremely important, especially playing against one of the top programs in college basketball,” Grant said. “We’ll be ready.”

To be ready, the Irish took preparations a different direction this week. To prepare for last month’s two-game trip to Mohegan Sun Casino Arena where Notre Dame basically played de facto home games against Massachusetts and Providence, coach Mike Brey had loud music pumped over the arena speakers during practice.

Brey planned to do the same this week. For a home game.

Notre Dame has played in Purcell five times this season, but none will match the interest and intensity of Wednesday. Every seat is expected to be full. That will be different. The student section may be crowded. That will be different. There will be a buzz in the building. That will be different.

But can the Irish stay the same? Can they dig in and continue to defend on one end, then still move the ball on the other? First time in such an energetic environment – against Massachusetts – Notre Dame tumbled into a double-digit deficit less than 10 minutes in because it played like it wanted to prove everything right away.

Once the Irish settled down, a 10-point deficit flipped to a 17-point lead before an impressive 13-point victory.

“Can a great home atmosphere, as it’s done many times here, give us energy and confidence and not get us out of character or play too fast?” Brey wondered. “It’s easy to say it and then you get in this frenzied atmosphere.

“For us to get back in the mix for postseason, you’ve got to get back to doing what you’ve done here at home.”

For non-league games, that means winning. A lot. Notre Dame is 82-3 in its last 85 non-conference home games. This is a non-conference home game. So ...

“For us to get a win against a heck of a program, for this team, in our home building early in the season, would be really something to build on,” Brey said.

Two guys who have been around the college basketball block – Connaughton and Grant – must steady the ship should the Irish find the early going a little rocky. But two guys still new to it all – junior power forward Zach Auguste and sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson – also have to play with poise through any pressure. This is the first time they’ll be in such an atmosphere as main guys. They can’t be wide-eyed. Nobody in the new gold uniforms and snazzy green sneakers can be. If they are, the night won’t end right.

“We have to come out there and take care of business,” Auguste said. “We can’t let anything slide. It’s going to be a big-time game.”

“It’s a big game for us,” said Jackson, who was recruited by Michigan State out of Marian High School. “Another opportunity to go out and showcase our abilities.”

And another chance for Notre Dame to further distance itself from the grease fire of last season. Brey and the players have tired of talking about everything that went wrong a year ago. Having something go really right Wednesday might finally give everyone a sense of closure. Come up short? Same old story. Get a win? Hey, maybe this group’s got a chance.

“We need to go out there and show the world that we’re coming off a tough year, but we’re different this year,” Connaughton said. “This is why we do the things we do in the offseason, to prepare for nights like this.”

Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton knows what it's like to have a homecourt advantage in Purcell Pavilion.SBT File Photo