Rare non-conference home challenge awaits ND men's hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Company lines typically are toed to the letter of the cliché law when college basketball’s first full month arrives and becomes dominated by lopsided scores.

Gotta take it one game at a time.

Every game is a big game.

Anyone can beat anyone.

With the sprint to start the season having slowed to a steady gait and all the early-season tournaments — everyone get enough quality matchups/upsets during Feast Week? — complete, December often sees power-conference schools settle in and fatten up its win totals in front of the home folks.

For the next month, final exams often are tougher tests than any opponent.

Notre Dame is no different. Since 2006-07, it has played 41 non-conference December home games. It has won 39. It lost to a North Dakota State team that eventually won 26 games and advanced to the NCAA tournament in 2013-14 and was clipped in the closing seconds by Loyola Marymount in 2009-10.

Even when the Irish have been far from their best at home in December, it’s still been good enough.

That changes Tuesday when Notre Dame (5-2) faces arguably its toughest challenge to date. Stony Brook (4-2) saunters into Purcell Pavilion an experienced, confident outfit intent on making this season the first in school history that it gets to the NCAA tournament.

For Notre Dame, it’s Monmouth all over again. Only Stony Brook could be better.

“They’re going to come in hunting for us,” said junior swingman V.J. Beachem. “We’ve got to be ready to go from the tip and ready to have a great game.

“We’ve already been through a game like this and ended up losing it. Hopefully, we’ve learned from it and know that we can’t treat anyone lightly.”

Idle since Wednesday’s win at Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Notre Dame got back to basics over the weekend. The Irish held two-a-day workouts and operated with a training-camp mentality. Every aspect of the operation went under the microscope. The offense has to run even smoother. The defense, be it man or zone, has to be better. Coach Mike Brey also toyed with lengthening the rotation against an opponent that returns all five starters and nine contributors off last year’s team that came thisclose to getting to the NCAA tournament.

The Irish still may look Tuesday a lot like they did last week – short rotation, mixing of defenses, efficient offense – but they believe they’ve gotten better. The next step is to avoid being OK in some spurts, awful in others and put together a full 40 minutes. That would be a first this season. What better time to do it than against a quality opponent with designs of leaving town around midnight Wednesday with a statement win?

“We’re still struggling to find our identity (but) we’ve tuned up some things,” said power forward Zach Auguste. “We really have to put two halves together. This is another challenge for us and we’d be happy to beat this team.”

Stony Brook nearly won last month at No. 21 Vanderbilt, one of the more intimidating/unique places to play. The Seawolves boast of one of the best players nobody knows about in 6-foot-8 power forward/double-double machine Jameel Warney. They won’t be rattled. They’re good. Really good.

“You can argue,” Brey said, “it’s the best team we’ve played.”

So why play it? Why not continue to scrape the bottom of the lower-conference standings barrel and build up as many stress-free wins as possible? That has often been the Irish M.O. – play a bunch of easy non-league December home games, rack up wins and roll into conference play on a roll. That certainly was the case last December when Notre Dame won its five non-league home games by an average of 19.4 points.

Coming off a 15-17 showing the previous winter, that schedule was necessary to stockpile confidence. Coming off 32-6, Brey wanted this group to be pushed more in non-league play. Off came the usual pushovers; on came the likes of Milwaukee and Stony Brook, Loyola (Ill.) and Liberty. Maybe not household names, but also not easy-effort nights.

“These are tough games,” Beachem said. “It definitely challenges us and allows us to learn where we need to improve. That’s something that’s going to benefit this team moving forward.”

Stony Brook called Notre Dame in the offseason seeking to fill a non-conference date. Irish assistant Martin Ingelsby took the offer to his boss. Brey didn’t think twice. Book it, he told Ingelsby, who handles scheduling.

“We felt, ‘Let’s challenge ourselves and schedule up,’” Brey said. “It’s by design.”

It's also about a numbers game. The quality of Notre Dame’s non-league opponents had to be better. No more Gramblings or Binghamtons or Coppin States, which won exactly two, six and eight games last season.

Notre Dame’s first seven opponents of 2014-15 averaged 11.8 wins and carried an average Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 226 last season. Notre Dame’s first seven opponents in 2015-16 won an average of 18 games with an average RPI of 142 last season.

Opponent No. 8 – Stony Brook – won 23 games and had an RPI of 112 a year ago.

Last year, only two of Notre Dame’s first seven opponents had RPIs under 235. Three ballooned over 310 (the lower an opponent’s RPI, the better a team’s NCAA tournament resume looks). This season, only one of the first seven Irish opponents (Massachusetts-Lowell), carried an RPI a year ago over 235. Three were under 100.

Stony Brook is expected to be a hard game, because Notre Dame went in search of them to help come NCAA tournament time.

“It puts you in position where if you can do enough against this non-league schedule, maybe you don’t have to win 14 league games or 12 league games,” Brey said. “You don’t have to get them all when you play a schedule like this, but you get the right ones, you’re going in with a nice (NCAA) resume before you play a league game.

“I like it.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

• WHO: Notre Dame (5-2) vs. Stony Brook (4-2).

• WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

• WHEN: Tuesday at 9 p.m.

• TICKETS: Available.

• TV: ESPNU. Also available on WatchND.tv.

• 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: Jameel Warney had 26 points and 15 rebounds to lead four players in double figures in scoring in Saturday’s 91-77 victory at home against Princeton. The Seawolves shot 63.5 percent from the field, 63.6 percent from 3 and 85.7 percent (18-of-21) from the foul line. … The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Warney leads Stony Brook in scoring (18.2) and rebounding (13.2). He is a two-time conference player of the year. Warney also was named league defensive player of the year last season. He has double-doubles for points and rebounds in each of his last six games. … Warney and senior guard Carson Puriefoy (12.3 ppg.) were first team all-league preseason selections this year. … Stony Brook was picked in a preseason vote of conference coaches to win the nine-team America East. It’s the second straight year the Seawolves have been picked to win the league. … This starts a stretch of six of eight and eight of 11 on the road for the Seawolves, who are 1-2 away from home. That includes a 79-72 overtime loss at No. 21 Vanderbilt. The Seawolves also have lost at Western Kentucky. … Stony Brook finished 23-12, 12-4 and tied for second in the America East last season. … The Seawolves were 1.6 seconds away from advancing to the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history before losing to Albany on a 3-pointer in the conference tournament championship game. … Stony Brooks returns 93.5 percent of its scoring off last year’s team. … The Seawolves have averaged 21.6 wins the last six seasons. …. Notre Dame leads the all-time series, 2-0. The last meeting was an 88-62 Irish victory in South Bend on Dec. 19, 2010. … Notre Dame has been idle since an 84-79 victory Wednesday at Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. It was win No. 1,800 in program history. … That capped a stretch of four games in seven days for the Irish, who close their non-league schedule with five games in 29 days heading into the Atlantic Coast Conference opener Jan. 2 at No. 10 Virginia. … Notre Dame hosts Loyola (Ill.) on Sunday at 2 p.m.

• WORTH QUOTING: “Every team is good this year. You can’t look at the name on the front of the jersey and just put them on your back because it’s a team we haven’t seen. We learned that against Monmouth. You’ve got to give every team credit.”

-Notre Dame senior power forward Zach Auguste.