Notes: National ranking arrives for Notre Dame men's hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Content to keep quiet while the national buzz bounced around other basketball programs for the last couple of months, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey accepts that those days likely are over.

A 54-point victory Sunday over North Carolina A&T matched the best Irish start under Brey at 8-0 and let a certain secret slip to the national media.

Notre Dame is pretty good.

Others have noticed.

On Monday, the Irish entered both national polls – the USA Today/Coaches and the Associated Press – for the first time this season.

The Irish are ranked No. 23 in the AP poll; 22 in the coaches poll.

“I love the fact that they left us alone,” Brey said following Sunday’s win. “We had a little more up here than anybody thought, but that’s OK.”

Notre Dame is one of five Atlantic Coast Conference teams ranked in the AP poll this week. Duke is at No. 5, North Carolina at No. 7. Louisville is 11th and Virginia, which lost Saturday at home to West Virginia, slides from sixth to 13th.

The Irish enter the week the only league team still undefeated.

“We’ll take that and run with it, man,” Brey said. “We’ve really put ourselves in a great position. We’ve handled our business. There’s a great vibe about them.”

Notre Dame’s first test as a ranked team might be its toughest this season. Fort Wayne (7-2) comes calling for a nationally-televised game Tuesday at Purcell Pavilion. The Mastodons have been in the “also received votes” section of the AP poll the last two weeks following the Thanksgiving-week upset of then-No. 3 Indiana.

It’s a chance for Notre Dame to validate its national ranking.

“No disrespect to who we’ve played to date, they may be the best team we’ve played given their frame of mind, their confidence,” Brey said. “It would be (an NCAA Tournament) resume win for us.”

 Defensive doings

Two days prior to the North Carolina A&T game, the main talking point for the Irish when discussing what area they can continue to improve on and be better at was defense.

“That can really get us going, get us out on our offense,” said point guard Matt Farrell. “We can defend really well together.”

The Irish did it again Sunday in limiting the Aggies to 30.2 percent from the field and 21.9 percent from 3. That defense helped fuel Notre Dame to a season-high 107 points.

Can this team be Brey’s best in terms of locking down opponents and guarding for extended stretches?

“I think it is because they think they are,” Brey said. “You’ve got to have some of that. We really know how to play and rotate and help off each other.”

Notre Dame has held opponents to under 40 percent from the floor – long an Irish bench-mark in terms of assessing team defense – in five of eight games. The Irish rank fourth in the ACC in field goal percentage defense at 36.7. Last season, they finished eighth at 43.2.

 Early exits

Following last week’s win over Iowa, Notre Dame junior power forward Martinas Geben jokingly wondered why the officials don’t like him. After fouling out in 11 minutes, Geben pondered bringing a peace offering – say, apple slices – to future officiating crews.

“If they got to know me, they would probably like me,” Geben said last week. “I’d hope they’d like me.”

He’s likely wondering even more after Sunday. Geben again fouled out after scoring five points and four rebounds in 14 minutes.

“He’s frustrated,” Brey said. “I don’t want him to back off. We need him to be physical. I think we’re going to have to ride with that because he gives us a presence in there.”

A passing presence. Geben had two assists Sunday, including one where he was double-teamed in the low post, then kicked to Matt Ryan for a spot-up 3-pointer.

“He just finds people,” Brey said. “I don’t want him to be discouraged because we need him.”

A first-time starter, Geben is averaging 3.5 points and 5.6 rebounds, second on the team, in 14.6 minutes. After logging a total of 48 minutes last year, he’s already played 117.

“I’ve always been a physical player and I want to play that way,” Geben said. “I guess I still need to learn that line between physical and foul.”

 Bench brigade

The recent consistent work of the Irish reserves has Brey rethinking his belief that bench points are the most overrated number of a final stats sheet.

Notre Dame finished with a staggering 45 bench points in Sunday’s game after three of the four main reserves – freshman guard T.J. Gibbs and sophomore wings Rex Pflueger and Matt Ryan – all scored double figures.

Brey is pleased with the way his nine-man rotation has worked. Especially when he comes with the defensive-minded trio of Pflueger, Gibbs and senior power forward Austin Torres off the bench.

It’s a look that Brey admitted he’s never before had from the 6-7-8 guys in the rotation.

“They give you a great energy boost and defensive boost when they’re in there,” Brey said. “They kind of wear a team down.”

 Even better

Just when it seemed Notre Dame couldn’t be any better from the free throw line, the Irish have been.

Notre Dame made all 14 of its free throws Sunday, including two each from reserves Elijah Burns and John Mooney. That bumped the team’s percentage, which leads the ACC and is best in the nation, to 85.8 percent.

The Irish have made at least 90 percent of their free throws in four of their first eight games.

“Watching us this summer when we would do some free throw stuff, I thought we could be really good,” Brey said. “We’re better. There’s amazing confidence right there.”

Three Irish rank 1-2-3 in the league in foul shooting – Farrell is first at 100 percent (20-20). Steve Vasturia is second at 95.7 (22-23) while Bonzie Colson is third at 91.3 (42-46). Senior captain V.J. Beachem gives the Irish four starters in the Top 10. He’s ninth at 83.9.

 Numbers game

Notre Dame leads the ACC in six different statistical categories – scoring margin (+26.5), free throw percentage (85.8), 3-point field goal percentage (42.9), assists (18.9), turnover margin (+5.50) and assist/turnover ratio (2.3).

Individually, Beachem and Colson are among four players tied for ninth in the ACC in scoring at 17.1. Colson is second in rebounding at 10.8. Farrell is third in assists (5.4). Ryan is second in 3-point field goal percentage (48.7). Gibbs (4.2) and Farrell (3.3) rank second and fifth in assist/turnover ratio.

No Irish ranks in the Top 10 in minutes.

• Colson earned ACC player of the week honors Monday after averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds in two Irish wins. Colson's on a run of five-straight double-doubles for points and rebounds. That includes last week's 24-point, 17-rebound effort in the win over Iowa. His 17 rebounds were a career best.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

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Notre Dame entered the national rankings this week at No. 23 in the Associated Press poll after opening with eight-straight wins, which ties the best-ever start for the Irish under 17th-year head coach Mike Brey. (AP File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)