Notes: Big opportunity awaits Martinas Geben, Notre Dame bigs

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Bounding out to the Purcell Pavilion main floor for basketball practice early Thursday afternoon, Notre Dame junior power forward Martinas Geben sported a bushy beard and a sly smile.

He termed the facial hair his “finals-week beard” where the books took precedent over the razor. He figures to shave it before New Year’s. The smile was in part because of the next opponent on the schedule for the No. 21 Irish.

Playing Purdue in the annual Crossroads Classic doubleheader Saturday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis means playing against some serious size in power forward Caleb Swanigan (6-foot-9, 250 pounds) and center Isaac Haas (7-2, 290). Going up against the tallest frontline that the Irish have faced to date this season means that Geben, 6-10, 255, might have a chance to throw around some of his weight.

And he may get to do so with no double-team help. One-on-one, big-vs.-big, let's see what you've got.

“I’m absolutely excited,” Geben said. “They’re a very talented team between Haas and Swanigan. I’m just really looking forward to taking them out of the game and imposing my presence.”

And, in the process, playing a little bit more of his game. Geben starts for the Irish and averages 3.6 points and 5.0 rebounds in 15.0 minutes per game. But there have been times this season, particularly the back-to-back games against Iowa and North Carolina A&T when he’s wondered whether the officials have it out for him.

Geben tried to be physical in both games, but wound up fouling out of each. Maybe it was because he was without peer those nights, no fellow big to body. That won’t be the case against the towering Haas, who will be a defensive challenge.

One that Geben’s ready to embrace. He wants to bang against another big. He wants to be physical for multiple possessions without next hearing a whistle.

“Hopefully, they won’t call fouls,” Geben said. “We’re going to be really active and push them out and do our work early.”

Saturday is Notre Dame’s third game this season against the Big Ten. In the first two – Northwestern and Iowa – Geben averaged 2.0 points and 3.5 rebounds in 11 minutes.

Though the stats may not show it, Geben continues to do so solid, if unspectacular work around the rim. He anchors the Irish low-post defense. He actively shows on ball screens and has been consistent staying in good guarding/helping/recovering position.

“That’s helped us,” coach Mike Brey said. “We’re better defensively when he’s in the game.”

New territory

Bouncing back off a loss and not letting it become two in a row is something the Irish have taken a lot of pride in.

Late last season, Notre Dame dropped consecutive games to Florida State and Miami (Fla.), which snapped a streak of 67 consecutive games (basically two years) in which it rebounded from a loss the last time out with a win the next time out.

On Saturday, the Irish find themselves in the rare position of trying to avoid a second-straight non-conference loss. The Irish have not lost consecutive December games since 2003-04 when they were beaten by Central Michigan and Indiana, both at home.

How does Notre Dame bounce back with no real non-league blueprint?

“That will come more from our group and our leadership,” Brey said. “I don’t think I have to talk a lot about it.”

Brey sensed during Wednesday’s first day back after the Villanova loss that the team’s captains, the team’s leaders, were ready to atone for the season’s lone setback. The loss still stung, but the Irish were ready to move on to the next challenge.

“Our nucleus, we’ve been through a lot; we’ve seen a lot,” said junior captain Bonzie Colson. “We’ve been through tough games, even this season, where it really shows out what we can do.

“We have to continue to have that edge, have that swagger.”

Farrell fine

There were a few anxious moments midway through the first half of Saturday’s loss to Villanova when Notre Dame starting point guard Matt Farrell hobbled off the court.

While cutting through the lane on the way to the corner in front of the Villanova bench, Farrell stepped on the foot of Wildcat guard Mikal Bridges and tweaked his right ankle.

Farrell returned after a few minutes on the sideline and played 36 minutes. He was held out of Wednesday’s practice/scrimmage – the first workout since finals week commenced – as a precaution. Brey indicated it was more of a ligament issue than an ankle sprain.

“I’m good,” Farrell said. “They gave me off (Wednesday) so I iced and rehabbed. I’m ready.”

Notable numbers

A few numbers about Saturday’s Crossroads matchup with Purdue caught Brey a bit by surprise Thursday afternoon.

Like the fact that the game is the first time ever that both teams are ranked heading into the contest.

“That is crazy,” Brey said. “That is an amazing stat.”

Purdue (8-2) is at No. 15 in this week’s Associated Press poll. Notre Dame (9-1) jumped to No. 21 from 23 following last week’s loss to Villanova.

Brey also was almost taken aback, and left nearly speechless, when informed that the Boilermakers are also seeking their first-ever win in the Crossroads. When Purdue doesn’t play Notre Dame every other year, it plays Butler. The Boilers are 0-5 lifetime in the games.

“Wow, I did not know that,” Brey said. “God. Darn. Oh, boy. I’m glad we’ve been pretty good down there.”

Notre Dame is 3-2 all-time in the Crossroads.

Baseline bits

• Notre Dame leads the nation in free throw percentage (86.4), assist/turnover ratio (2.28) and fewest turnovers (8.2).

• Sophomore forward Matt Ryan leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in 3-point field goal percentage (47.6).

• Farrell enters Saturday’s game the ACC leader in free throw percentage at 1.000. He’s connected on all 24 to date. He's one attempt shy for qualifying nationally.

• Freshman guard T.J. Gibbs leads the ACC and ranks fifth in the nation in assist/turnover ratio (5.0). Gibbs has 30 assists to six turnovers through 10 games.

• Former Irish swingman Cameron Biedscheid, who spent a season and a half at Notre Dame before transferring, has been dismissed from the LSU-Shreveport team, an NAIA squad. Biedscheid also attended Missouri and Jacksonville (Ala.) State after leaving Notre Dame.

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