More tourney magic for Notre Dame?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — They hit this vacation destination five years ago this week in search of a direction and an identity that would traverse the college basketball road that was waiting.

They left for home hauling a whole lot more than some tournament hardware.

Can this year’s version of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team follow what the 2010-11 squad did at the AdvoCare Invitational? Back then, it was known as the Old Spice Classic and the Thanksgiving night matchups set a veteran Irish team with five senior starters against a veteran Georgia team.

Notre Dame erased a 13-point deficit in the second half to escape with an 89-83 victory in double overtime. Three nights and two wins later, which included holding California to five first-half points and erasing an 11-point deficit with nine minutes remaining against Wisconsin in the finale, the Irish were celebrating a championship by cutting down the nets at HP Field House.

Coach Mike Brey has talked to his current team, which opens AdvoCare play Thursday night against Monmouth, about that 2010 run.

“That group, we were kind of searching,” Brey said of a nucleus learning to work without starting-lineup staples Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson (both graduated that spring) for the first time in a long time. “We didn’t know who we were (but) we were lucky to get out of Thanksgiving night in double overtime.

“You came out of there early getting some confidence.”

Success that weekend helped fuel Notre Dame’s run to a 27-7 record as the Irish soared to as high as No. 4 in the national rankings. A team led by eventual Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough did a whole lot really well, and the Thanksgiving tournament title kick-started Notre Dame into believing that it could do it.

“Winning a championship like that was the first real validation that we were pretty good and could have a special season,” former forward Tim Abromaitis told the Tribune in a direct message on Twitter from the Canary Islands, where he’s playing professionally. “We figured out early that we could beat tough teams in close games away from home, which we were going to need in the Big East.

“It was definitely a huge confidence boost.”

Abromaitis earned tournament most valuable player honors after his work, which included 25 points against Georgia.

Confident coming home from Orlando, Notre Dame started 12-1. It would tie the school record for league wins (14) and rolled through one Big East stretch where it lost only once — at West Virginia — in 53 days.

This year’s Irish core knows well what it’s like to cut down nets after winning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament last March. They want to do it again this weekend, and know how Notre Dame fared the last time it participated in this tournament.

“They went down there and won it,” junior wing V.J. Beachem said. “We want to keep that going.”

No 3 ‘d’

After finishing last in the league in 2013-14 for 3-point field goal percentage defense (38.5), Notre Dame improved to eighth last season (32.6). Yet three games into this year, the Irish are back to being routinely burned from distance.

Each of their last two opponents — Milwaukee (14) and Massachusetts-Lowell (10) — hit double-figures from distance. That pushes Notre Dame back into last in the league in 3-point field goal percentage defense (46.9 percent on 30-of-64 shooting).

What needs to be better?

“Better closeouts, better attention to detail, which will come,” insisted junior guard Demetrius Jackson. “We just want to keep that field goal percentage down from the 3-point line and contest every shot.”

Especially since Monmouth can get going from the arc. The Hawks connected on 10 3-pointers in their loss (USC) before shooting 46.7 last time out in a win at Drexel.

Yes, teams have hit some tough ones, contested ones, but Brey knows the Irish must be better defending the line. Working on closeouts was a big part of the practice plan this week.

“They will be dreaming about it when they go home at night,” Brey said. “We’ve really embraced guarding people (but) we’ve got to get out there more.”

Torres time?

No scholarship Irish has played fewer minutes or scored fewer points through the first three games than junior power forward Austin Torres. That may change starting Thursday for the former Penn High School product.

In the limited minutes he has logged, Torres has left a lasting impression on Brey. Seems like every time he’s on the floor, Torres is doing something contagious — battling for a rebound, setting a screen, taking a charge. Hustling. Competing.

“Torres is on my mind as our first big man sub,” Brey said following Saturday’s win over Massachusetts-Lowell. “We really have to get him reps for the simple reason he’s extremely active.

“That’s no mystery. We saw it last year.”

As a sophomore, his first year eligibility-wise after sitting out 2013-14, Torres averaged 2.0 points and 1.6 rebounds in 7.1 minutes over 27 games. His energy helped win the Michigan State game. He had two points and four rebounds in a career-high 19 minutes.

Torres has played 16 minutes this season, but might be in line Thursday to get the first call when either starting big — Zach Auguste or Bonzie Colson — needs a break.

“I want to get him ready for that role,” Brey said.

Notre Dame won three games in four days to capture the 2010 Old Spice Classic, now known as the AdvoCare Invitational.AP File Photo/JOHN RAOUX