Off national radar, ND men go on road for Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Words offered then by the head coach may not have meant all that much to members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, but now carry a little more weight to work.

Back before the Irish received their 2015 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament championship rings, before the banner acknowledging the accomplishment was raised to the Purcell Pavilion rafters, before Notre Dame climbed to No. 17 in the national rankings, Mike Brey warned that this season might have pitfall potential.

Nothing was going to come easily for an Irish outfit that simply wasn't going to pick up where everything left off last March. They insisted they were ready for any adversity.

But nobody saw Notre Dame heading out for its first true road game — Wednesday at Illinois (3-4) in the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge — wounded and wondering having just lost two November games for the first time since 2011.

“I told them in preseason — ‘This is going to be really hard this year. It’s going to be really hard. Do we understand what we signed up for?’” Brey said Tuesday. “We didn’t know when it was going to get so hard but we know now.

“Here we are.”

Where Notre Dame (4-2) is at is back at the basics. This week’s quick-turnaround practice plan was simple — move the ball and space the floor on offense, guard and guard again on defense. Get reps. Lots of reps. So much so that Notre Dame will even practice Wednesday — game day. Don't worry. Just work.

Losses in the winning moments against Monmouth (3.6 seconds remaining) and Alabama (six) in the recently-completed AdvoCare Invitational exposed some inefficiencies on both ends of the floor.

Offensively, how can the Irish keep flowing while still operating with power forwards Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson? Where can Brey put each in a place that won't bog everything down? Notre Dame was good in spurts against Alabama, but had too many possessions where cutting and passing seemed such a chore.

“It’s a fine line of holding a group accountable — be better here — but not tying them up in knots,” Brey said. “We need to be attacking and going for it.”

And when they go for it and get fouled, be better at the free-throw line. Make free throws in either of the two losses (the Irish missed nine against Monmouth, seven against Alabama) and Notre Dame may return from Disney World 3-0.

Brey joked Tuesday that the Irish would practice shooting more free throws. Underhanded.

Defensively, can the Irish keep anyone in front of them for an entire possession? They were sliced and pretty well diced Sunday by the Crimson Tide, who ripped off 44 points in the paint. That included the decisive layup that cut right through an Irish 2-3 zone defense.

Brey wouldn’t mind seeing the same defensive scenarios that cost his team wins against Monmouth and Alabama resurface Wednesday.

If the Irish want to be really good, then guard.

“Can we win a game with a stop?” Brey wondered. “That’s really a key for us.”

Can Notre Dame also defend from the jump? The Irish didn’t dig in at the end of the Alabama game, mainly because they didn’t have their hard hats and shovels for much of the first half.

“If that’s going to happen, we’re not going to win,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “Everybody’s got to get better.”

Can Auguste and Colson be better at guarding the ball screen? Show if needed, recover quickly. They better be, because Illinois (3-4) will be coming at them with a heavy helping of ball screens with guards who want to cut off the screen and get to the basket or hit the screener rolling down the lane for a dunk.

Auguste and Colson were way too slow to help and recover on screens against Alabama. They better be better Wednesday.

“We’ve got to be more consistent, which we haven’t been,” Auguste said. “You just have to get better and win from here.”

Notre Dame had six kills (three-straight stops) in Friday’s win against Iowa. Against Alabama, it managed only three.

“When we’ve gotten closer to double digits in kills, it’s been good nights defensively,” Brey said. “You’ve got to put some stops together.”

While some may look at Notre Dame’s recent struggles and spy darker days on the horizon, Brey sees the light of opportunity. To teach. To learn. To develop. To improve. Notre Dame’s off the national radar, out of the national rankings and not a part of any serious conversation about who the really good teams are this early in the season.

Brey’s OK with that. It raises the attention level in meetings, raises the effort level in workouts. Brey insisted the Irish gave him their undivided attention when he talked of the tough stuff in preseason. He really has it now.

“The best thing right now is we’re unranked and we’re poor and we have an atmosphere to really coach and work in,” he said. “In a twisted sort of way, I think it’s my favorite place to be. Like, I’m excited. I’m energized.

“You’re in your own little bubble trying to get better.”

That bubble may burst with Notre Dame the first opponent for the first game in the new-look State Farm Center. An Illinois team that also really needs something to go right to get their season in gear will be primed to put on a good show for what will be the largest crowd the Irish have played in front of this season. Almost of them will be sporting some shade of orange.

“It’s a great scenario,” said Brey. “For this group, to go be tough on the road in what’s going to be an unbelievable atmosphere, if you can scratch one out, it would be a great step forward for this group.”

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Coming off Sunday's loss to Alabama, Demetrius Jackson and Notre Dame have another tough test Wednesday at Illinois.AP Photo/WILLIE J. ALLEN Jr.

Big Ten/ACC Challenge

• WHO: Notre Dame (4-2) vs. Illinois (3-4).

• WHERE: State Farm Center (15,700), Champaign, Ill.

• WHEN: Wednesday at 9:15 p.m. (South Bend time).

• 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

• WORTH NOTING: This will be the first game played this season at the State Farm Center, which has undergone a $169.5 million renovation. ... Illinois played its first four home games 85 miles away in Springfield. The Illini went 2-2 with losses to North Florida and Chattanooga. … Malcolm Hill scored 20 points with five rebounds in an 84-73 loss Saturday to No. 5 Iowa State in the Emerald City Classic in Niceville, Fla. The Illini led by six and trailed by 17. Illinois was outrebounded 40-30. … Guard Kendrick Nunn leads the Illini in scoring (18.5). He missed the first five games while recuperating from thumb surgery. Leading rebounder Mike Thorne Jr. (8.4), a transfer from Charlotte, is out indefinitely after knee surgery. … The Illini went 19-14, 9-9 and tied for seventh in the Big Ten last season. … Illinois leads the all-time series 26-13, including 11-1 at home. … Notre Dame’s win in Champaign was a 26-14 decision on Feb. 2, 1926. … This is the first Irish visit to Champaign since Dec. 8, 1947. … Notre Dame and Illinois meet for the first time since a 68-60 Irish victory in the second round of the 2003 NCAA tournament West Regional at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. … Wednesday’s game features a matchup between junior guard Demetrius Jackson, who chose Notre Dame over Illinois and freshman guard Jalen Coleman-Lands, who chose Illinois over Notre Dame. … This is the 17th season of the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Atlantic Coast Conference leads the all-time series 94-75. The Big Ten won last year’s matchup, 8-6. Notre Dame is 1-1 in the Challenge with a loss at Iowa (2013) and overtime home win over Michigan State (2014). … Notre Dame returns to action Tuesday at home against Stony Brook.

• WORTH QUOTING: “You get back in the gym, get some free throws down and get ready for Illinois. You get better.”

-Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste, who missed two free throws with 28.6 seconds remaining in Sunday’s 74-73 loss to Alabama.