Notre Dame hoops aims to close out demanding week with another league road win
PITTSBURGH – Everything accomplished by the No. 8 Notre Dame men’s basketball team to date indicates that it might be tempted to take the foot off the accelerator as a demanding and draining week closes.
Instead, coach Mike Brey prefers the pedal be pushed further to the floor for 40 more minutes.
Entering Saturday’s noon game at unranked Pittsburgh (13-8, 3-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), Notre Dame has won five in a row and 16 of 17. The Irish (20-2, 8-1) are off to their best start since opening 21-1 in 1973-74. They’ve lost once – to No. 2 Virginia – in the last 69 days. They’ve climbed the national rankings and could be knocking on the door of the top five when the new polls arrive Monday. They’ve run up the league standings, and sit second only to the Cavaliers.
After laboring to one league road win last season, Notre Dame is 4-0 away from home. In the previous six days, the Irish erased an 18-point deficit to win in overtime at North Carolina State, then shrugged off a 10-point deficit with less than 11 minutes remaining Wednesday to dump No. 4 Duke.
This season has seen Notre Dame do and win more than anyone ever expected. But the expectations inside the Irish locker room have no spot – not yet – for satisfaction.
“We have a strong confidence and swagger,” said sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson. “The best part about our team is that we can continue to get better and we haven’t reached our peak yet.”
Minutes after beating the Blue Devils at home for a second consecutive season, Brey had already turned the page to the third and final game in a seven-day stretch. Given how far Notre Dame has come since last season’s 15-17 struggle, heck, given what the Irish have done this week, they would be excused if they weren’t at their best at Petersen Events Center.
A letdown is almost expected, so it's something Brey has worked the last few days to avoid.
“We would have every reason to be a little flat, a little under-energized,” he said. “Human nature would say you’re not going to be very good. I’m very interested to see how we are high noon on Saturday.”
Wednesday’s win over Duke pushed Notre Dame even further out onto the national stage. Chasing a league championship has become a very real possibility. So might be a deep NCAA tournament run, something Notre Dame hasn’t done since 2003.
Whispers that this season might be turning into something special are growing louder and getting harder to ignore. Has Brey bought in?
Not yet, and he told his team as much the other night back in South Bend. Playing well and winning Saturday could set this team up for one fine February. And beyond.
“I said if you get the one in Pittsburgh,” Brey said, “I’ll start to refer to you as having special qualities.”
One quality the Irish have repeatedly shown in league play has been the ability to dismiss deficits. Notre Dame has trailed by double digits in six of its last eight league games. The Irish have been down big at home. They’ve been down big on the road. They’ve figured it out and won five of those six games.
Other than last week’s 25-point win at Virginia Tech, and maybe the win earlier in the month at North Carolina, Notre Dame has rarely put together a complete 40 minutes in an ACC game where the effort and execution is really humming.
“That’s an area of improvement we need to make,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “We need to find a way to start that at the start of the game and (sustain) it throughout the whole game.”
In an effort to jump-start a good, full 40, Brey put the Irish through a different kind of game situation the day before the Duke game. He put 20 minutes on the clock for a five-on-five scrimmage to simulate the start of a game. The white team – the starters – jumped to a quick lead. Maybe that quick-start quality would carry over to the Duke game.
Not so much. After allowing a season-high 42 points in the first half Sunday, Notre Dame gave up 39 on Wednesday. It led by seven points early in the first half before falling into the 10-point hole in the second. But the Irish figured it out. Again.
“You never want the switch to be flipped off,” Connaughton said. “But when we flip that switch, there’s a unique ability for us to come back from these deficits.”
That ability stems from a fight and a focus on an end of the floor that was so foreign to the Irish last season. Success seldom surfaced because Notre Dame just couldn’t lock in and get those handful of defensive stops needed to make a difference. That’s no longer the case.
So much was made this week about Notre Dame’s offense – specifically guard Jerian Grant – finding a groove and a rhythm and getting on a roll to rally in the North Carolina State and Duke games. But it was the defense that really did it.
Notre Dame held North Carolina State to 29 points on 39.3 percent shooting in Sunday’s second half. The Wolfpack mustered only two baskets the final 5:30 of regulation. Three nights later, Duke was limited to two baskets the final 10:58. It has reached a point in every game when the Irish look at one another and know that if they want to win, they better defend. Then they guard and switch every assignment and rebound and get stops.
“Once you get few defensive stops, defensive rebounds, you get out, you run, make a few layups,” Connaughton said. “All of a sudden, the basket seems to get bigger.”
And that Irish swagger, which might have been staggered earlier in a game, returns. Instead of doing it when down double digits, Brey wondered if that defensive switch can be flipped Saturday if Pittsburgh takes, say, a three-point lead, and still be there at the end.
“The last seven, eight minutes of games, we’ve guarded the heck out of people,” he said. “We just kind of lock in there. I know we’re thoroughly exhausted, but we kind of fight through it.”
Forty more minutes and one more test this month awaits.
• WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (20-2 overall, 8-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Pittsburgh (13-8, 3-5).
• WHERE: Petersen Events Center (12,508), Pittsburgh.
• WHEN: Saturday at noon.
• TV: ACC Network (WMYS, Channel 69).
• 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@tnoieNDI.
• WORTH NOTING: Dropped in overtime Tuesday at Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh has lost three straight ACC games, also losing at home Sunday to No. 10 Louisville and last week at No. 4 Duke. … The Panthers are in 10th place in the conference after being picked in preseason to finish sixth. … Swingman Michael Young leads the team in scoring (13.2) and rebounding (7.8). … Guard James Robinson ranks second in the league in free throw percentage (84.4 percent) and fourth in assist/turnover ratio (2.48). Robinson picked Pittsburgh over Notre Dame coming out of DeMatha (Md.) High School. … The Panthers rank 11th in the league in scoring offense (67.3 ppg.), eighth in scoring defense (64.0) and 15th – last – in 3-point field goal percentage defense (34.3). … Pittsburgh is third in the league in assists (15.6); Notre Dame is fourth (15.5). … This is the first of three straight home games for the Panthers, who are 9-2 at home. … Pittsburgh finished 26-10, 11-7 and fifth place in the ACC last season. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 31-28, including 12-17 at Pittsburgh. … Prior to Pittsburgh’s 85-81 overtime victory in South Bend last March, Notre Dame had won the previous five and six of seven. … The last time Notre Dame lost at Pittsburgh was Jan. 31, 2009, after which coach Mike Brey insisted he was “Mr. Positive” following his team’s fifth straight loss in a seven-game losing streak. … This is the only regular-season meeting between the two former members of the Big East West Division. … Three Irish rank in the Top 10 in the ACC for minutes played – Jerian Grant (3rd, 35.9), Pat Connaughton (seventh, 34.5) and Demetrius Jackson (10th, 34.0). … The Irish have won their last five league games following Wednesday’s 77-73 victory over No. 4 Duke. … This closes a stretch of three games in seven days for each team. … Notre Dame plays only six games – three on the road, three at home – in February. … Notre Dame returns home Wednesday to face Boston College.
• WORTH QUOTING: “We’re the eighth-ranked team in the country and we can play with anybody on a given night.”
-Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton.