Time for Notre Dame men to answer massive hoops challenge
Eyes to the floor as if he had just picked up a trail that led toward the team bus in a building far from home, Notre Dame junior swingman V.J. Beachem didn’t need to look up to know what’s coming.
His teammates know.
His coach knows.
Having sandwiched a pair of Atlantic Coast Conference road losses, in which it trailed by 20 points in each, around a convincing home win against one of the league’s losingest teams, Notre Dame (15-7; 6-4 ACC) better be a whole lot better right from the start Saturday against league-leading and No. 2 North Carolina (19-3; 8-1).
“We just know how together we are and we’ve been able to bounce back before,” Beachem said of ND's reputation of avoiding consecutive losses. “We’ve got to be ready to go. They’re going to be ready to go. We’ve got to combat that and compete as hard as they do.”
The Irish have put themselves in this particular position — winning after a loss — 12 times since the start of 2014-15. Five times a year ago, they answered every loss with victories. The only time they didn’t have a chance was the dream-crushing loss to Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final. They’ve done it six times this season, most recently, earlier this week when they rebounded from the setback at Syracuse with a 23-point pounding of Wake Forest.
Notre Dame was thoroughly kicked around and kicked out of South Florida on Wednesday by No. 17 Miami. Unable to get many stops, unable to get in a rhythm, unable to find a lineup combination that clicked, Notre Dame trailed nearly start to finish before a nine-point loss.
Now comes the ultimate bounce-back challenge.
This is the crux of what coach Mike Brey referred to when he first talked in the summer of this season being hard. Even before the league schedule was released, Brey figured there would be nights like Saturday when the Irish would have to answer adversity on the heels of falling short somewhere along the way in league play.
Going 6-3 halfway through the league schedule was solid, but it guarantees the Irish nothing in terms of league tournament positioning and postseason play.
“The second half of the league schedule is more difficult,” Brey said. “So we’re going to have to grow up.”
Growing up for this group means guarding. The Irish did too little of that Wednesday. They need more of it from all involved Saturday. Out of their man defense. Their zone. On ball screens. On help and recovery.
“We’re letting guys get in the lane way too easily,” said junior captain Steve Vasturia. “We’ve got to stay in front of people. It comes down to having some pride and playing some defense.”
The Hurricanes played downhill much of Wednesday. Now comes a Tar Heel team that steps off the bus playing downhill and just keeps gathering speed and getting shots.
Miami’s guards cut up the Irish defense on drives, but Carolina is more about athletic bodies attacking in waves at the rim. Will Notre Dame have an answer? The Irish know if they don’t, they could be in for a very long night. And in for it in front of a sold out Purcell Pavilion and white-hot spotlight of ESPN’s College Basketball Gameday showcase.
“We’ve got to take more pride on the defensive end,” said sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson, “and have more heart.”
Prior to Wednesday, Notre Dame had fielded three starting lineups in as many games. Brey thought he had something working earlier this week when senior captain A.J. Burgett stepped into the starting rotation with a career game against Wake Forest. Starting Burgett allowed the Irish to start five upperclassmen and the whole playing-old shtick seemed to stick.
It lasted one game.
Burgett again started Wednesday, but the results weren’t as revelatory. He and fellow senior captain Zach Auguste fell into early foul trouble and were never factors. As a result, the Irish played young. Too young to win. Now they’ve got to be older and better against a team it twice beat last season in North Carolina, including for the league tournament championship. The Irish have to do it against a veteran team that has been as close to a lock for a Final Four pick as anyone in this topsy-turvy season.
While the rest of the rotation might be muddled, Brey is leaning toward staying with starting the five veterans and banking that they will be collectively better than they were mid-week.
There may be no other choice.
“We’re going to have to get a lot better; we’re going to have to play a lot better,” Vasturia said. “We’re going to have to be tougher, too.
“We’ve done it before, so we need to find it inside of ourselves and do it.”
WHO: Notre Dame (15-7 overall; 6-4 ACC) vs. No. 2 North Carolina (19-3; 8-1).
WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).
WHEN: Saturday at 7 p.m.
TICKETS: The game is a sellout.
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: Justin Jackson scored 16 points and Brice Johnson added 15 points and 11 rebounds in a 71-65 North Carolina loss Monday at No. 19 Louisville. The Tar Heels went 3-for-17 from 3 and had their 12-game win streak snapped. … Johnson has an Atlantic Coast Conference-best 13 double doubles for points and rebounds. He also leads the league in field goal percentage (62.4 percent) and is first in rebounding in conference games at 11.0. … North Carolina is ranked No. 1 in the USA Today coaches poll. … Notre Dame is 10-25 all-time against schools ranked No. 1. The Irish are 7-3 at home, but 3-16 when unranked and facing No. 1. Notre Dame has lost seven of its last eight games against top-ranked teams. … Through the first nine league games, North Carolina ranks first in the ACC for scoring offense (81.7), scoring margin (+11.0), rebounding margin (+6.7), assists (16.5) and steals (8.3). … The Tar Heels rank last in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (30.2) and 3-pointers made (5.27). … North Carolina leads the all-time series 18-6, including 4-1 in South Bend. The loss was Feb. 1, 1987 when the Tar Heels were ranked No. 1. … Notre Dame won both meetings last year with its first-ever win (71-70) in Chapel Hill in early January and in the ACC tournament championship game (90-82) for the school’s first-ever league tournament title. … Notre Dame has beaten a Top 10 team at home each of the last five years and beaten a Top 5 opponent at home four of the last five seasons. … Junior guard Demetrius Jackson is 13 points away from becoming the 58th player in school history to score 1,000 in his career.
WORTH QUOTING: “We’ve got to be ready, got to defend, got to come out strong, got to play with heart and passion. We need this win.”
-Notre Dame sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson.