'Poor' basketball mindset can help No. 14 Notre Dame men rebound on road

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

To step forward following its most lopsided Atlantic Coast Conference loss this season, No. 14 Notre Dame had to step back.

Back when the Irish had no clue of the view from inside the national rankings. When point guard Matt Farrell wasn’t touted at every turn as the feel-good story of college basketball. When power forward Bonzie Colson wasn’t running down rebounds at a conference-best rate of 10.5 per game. When Steve Vasturia hadn’t had the chance to knock down big shots in big moments.

Back when everyone was wondering where this college basketball season might be headed. Back before Notre Dame won a school-record five-straight ACC games to open league play and sprint to a 6-1 start.

Notre Dame (17-4; 6-2) returned to ACC reality earlier this week with a 17-point home loss to No. 12 Virginia. The loss, particularly the way they lost, grabbed the Irish attention heading into Saturday’s matinee (noon, ESPNU) at Georgia Tech (12-8; 4-4).

“We got our butts kicked at home and it’s awful,” Colson said. “We needed that, just a way to get that edge back and show who we really are.

“We needed a little reality check to get us back feeling poor again.”

Like the way Notre Dame felt when it was off any national radar as it started with home victories over Bryant, Seattle and Loyola (Md.) by an average of 34.3 points. As Notre Dame headed to Brooklyn, N.Y. for the semifinals of the Legends Classic during Thanksgiving week, it carried a certain edge of uncertainty. A determination that no matter how dominant they may play, there was plenty to prove.

That edge dulled in recent weeks for various reasons. A lack of quality practice time. A bunch of games in a condensed window. And, honestly, those five straight league wins.

“We’ve been living pretty good,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “You know, you’re 6-1 and you’re winning games. I think the intensity of your practices, maybe because of human nature, isn’t as great as it needs to be.”

Following the mandatory off day Wednesday as required by the NCAA, Brey demanded more starting Thursday.

“We need two practices like before we went to Brooklyn when we were poor and didn’t know if we were worth anything,” he said. “That’s the first step.”

And a different step. Brey liked what he saw Thursday in terms of focus. Still, he shook the status quo toward the end of practice. Brey mentioned Thursday night on his radio show that he flipped the script on everyone. The five starters, who always wear white jerseys, switched to blue, the color of the reserves. The five top reserves switched to white.

It likely marked the first time that four starters – Farrell, Colson and senior captains V.J. Beachem and Vasturia – had operated for any extended length of time, if at all, in blue.

Brey did it simply to set a different tone, he said.

Will it work? We’ll see.

Two weeks ago, Saturday’s game could have been etched with pencil in the league win column. The Irish still were undefeated. The Yellow Jackets were scrambling to pick up the pieces having lost four of six. That included a 53-point loss at Duke.

The biggest challenge for Notre Dame this weekend was expected to be negotiating midtown Atlanta traffic on its way in from and out to Hartsfield International Airport. Georgia Tech wasn’t expected to be much of a challenge.

Get through this one, grab the quick charter flight home and get ready for the Big Monday showdown with Duke.

Not so fast ….

That script also has flipped.

Notre Dame headed south Friday losers of two of its last three. Georgia Tech may be the most confident team in the league not named North Carolina, Louisville or Virginia. The Yellow Jackets shredded No. 6 Florida State at McCamish Pavilion on Wednesday. They’ve beaten two Top 10 teams in league play at home.

A Top 15 team might be in for more than anyone thought if Notre Dame doesn’t clean up two areas that let the Irish down earlier in the week – defense and rebounding.

Ranked fifth in the league in rebounding margin (+4.8) and having not out-rebounded an ACC opponent by more than eight, Virginia finished (+16) against Notre Dame, which was just slower to get to any sort of ball that was loose – off the offensive backboard, the defensive backboard and on the floor. The margin included 10 offensive rebounds that the Cavaliers turned into 15 second-chance points.

Notre Dame thought it could hang with Virginia given its improved commitment to defense. The Irish then allowed 44 points in the second half – in their own building – to a team that could get any shot whenever and wherever it wanted.

An active, aggressive bunch of Yellow Jackets await. The Irish may play bigger for longer stretches than normal. They may go zone. The two days of practice between games left Brey many options to consider.

“If you want to win these big games against really good teams, you’re going to have to get the stops that we’ve gotten most of the year,” Vasturia said. “Rebounding and defense for the most part is heart and hustle.

“We’ve got to regain that edge.”

And fast.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Power forward Bonzie Colson and Notre Dame look to bounce back from Tuesday's loss to No. 12 Virginia during Saturday's game at Georgia Tech. (AP Photo/ROBERT FRANKLINn)

WHO: No. 14 Notre Dame (17-4 overall; 6-2 ACC) vs. Georgia Tech (12-8; 4-4).

WHERE: McCamish Pavilion (8,600), Atlanta.

WHEN: Saturday at noon.

TV: ESPNU.

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.

 NOTING: Freshman Josh Okogie scored 35 points with career highs for rebounds (14) and assists (5) as Georgia Tech beat No. 6 Florida State, 78-56, on Wednesday at McCamish Pavilion. The Yellow Jackets led 41-15 at halftime and 70-47 with 6:52 left in the second half. It was the second home victory over a Top 10 team (No. 9 North Carolina) in conference play. … Georgia Tech heads into the weekend tied with Syracuse for seventh place. … Georgia Tech has beaten two Top 10 teams in a season for the first time since 2003-04. … A 6-foot-4 guard, Okogie is averaging 19.1 points in ACC play and has been named the league’s rookie of the week three times. … Picked in preseason to finish 14th in the 15-team ACC, Georgia Tech returns one starter off last year’s team that went 21-15, 8-10 and tied for 11th in the league. … Josh Pastner is in his first season at Tech after seven at Memphis, where the 39-year-old went 167-73. … Georgia Tech needed overtime to beat Division II Shorter College in a preseason exhibition. … The Yellow Jackets rank first in the league in field goal percentage defense for ACC games at 39.6, second in 3-point field goal percentage at 33.0 and third in scoring defense (69.6). … Ben Lammers, a 6-10 junior center, leads the league in blocks at 3.34 per game. … Georgia Tech leads the all-time series 8-6, 2-4 as ACC colleagues. Notre Dame has won four of the last five ... The Yellow Jackets are one of four repeat opponents for the Irish … Irish senior captain V.J. Beachem needs 10 points for 1,000 in his career. … Notre Dame is coming off its most lopsided loss of the season, 17 points, at home Tuesday to No. 12 Virginia.

QUOTING: “You’re not going to breeze though this league.”

• Notre Dame senior captain Steve Vasturia.