Noie: Another big game IS a big deal for No. 5 Notre Dame men's basketball program

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Last time out, Notre Dame played in the championship game of arguably the most high-profile, early-season college basketball tournament.

Next time out, Notre Dame plays in a game given its own night and hyped all week on the ESPN family of networks.

Last time out, Notre Dame played in front of a small but spirited crowd that made some serious noise for the other team.

Next time out, Notre Dame steps into a building it has never seen in front of a sellout crowd that will make even the easiest of tasks — simultaneously chewing gum and dribbling — seem surreal.

Last time out, Notre Dame faced an opponent that many believe can get to another Final Four.

Next time out, Notre Dame faces an opponent that many believe can win another national championship.

We’re barely three weeks into college basketball’s regular season, yet these are definitely different days for the Irish (6-0). Come Thursday, fifth-ranked Notre Dame takes a crack at a second straight Top 10 opponent when it visits No. 3 Michigan State (5-1) to close the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge (7 p.m., ESPN).

Thursday marks the first time since 2008 that Notre Dame has faced consecutive Top 10 opponents in November. You have to go all the way back to 1999 for the last time it played a true November road game against a top-five team. That year, it was against another Big Ten team — then-No. 4 Ohio State. The Buckeyes no longer were No. 4 after a David Graves basket at the buzzer.

This one’s not just another game. That it’s another big game is another big deal.

“Oh, yeah, absolutely,” said senior guard Matt Farrell, who captured most valuable player honors at last week’s Maui Jim Maui Invitational after leading the Irish to three wins in three days. “This is where we wanted to be at. This is a big opportunity for us to play well, play a good team. It’s going to be a challenge.

“It’s a challenge that we want and a challenge that we’re excited for.”

This veteran Irish outfit often floated through their three exhibition games. They won each by an average of 34.3 points. They showed flashes of why they’re considered one of the top teams this season in a loaded Atlantic Coast Conference. But they also looked disinterested at times. Bored with a preseason that seemed to stretch for months instead of weeks. Anxious to get to a bigger challenge or two.

Games like this are good. Win or lose.

“Our older guys, a veteran group, they want to play in big games,” said coach Mike Brey. “It’s a pretty focused group. They expect a lot of themselves. They’ve been in big games; they’ve delivered in big games.

“It doesn’t get much bigger than this against a great opponent.”

In preparing for Michigan State, Notre Dame likely saw a lot of Wichita State, which was ranked sixth prior to last week’s loss to Notre Dame. Like the Shockers, the Spartans dictate games with their defense. They guard. They swarm. They attack the backboard. They get out in transition. They get everybody involved. Michigan State dismantled North Carolina in that manner earlier in the week.

There are many similarities between the States. With one exception.

“They’re Wichita State on steroids,” Brey said. “They’re barreling downhill on you in their offense and they’re all over the backboard and then they guard the heck out of you in the halfcourt.”

A second shot

That the Irish just saw this style and beat this style can be to their advantage. They shouldn’t be rattled by the ball pressure. They should know size is coming at them in waves. They should understand that they’ve got to be a whole lot better — especially early — than they were the first time.

For much of the first 20 minutes in Maui, Notre Dame let Wichita State dictate tempo. The Irish had trouble executing just about everything on offense. Farrell was pushed out toward halfcourt as the Irish took too long to get into their sets. They tried too many challenge shots. Bad shots. Rushed shots. They scored a season-low 23 points in the first half. They also let it affect their defense and tumbled into a 16-point hole before eventually clawing out.

That cannot happen Thursday. Otherwise, not only are the Irish playing against the five guys in green and white, but 15,000 in a sold-out Breslin Center.

“We didn’t move well enough against Wichita State,” said Farrell, who’s best when he’s probing and attacking. “We’ve got to mix them up a little. We’ve got to move better and talk better.”

How can the Irish score it better? Brey didn’t have an answer for that earlier in the week. He'll need one by Thursday.

The easy storyline for this game, one that ESPN likely will be all over in the minutes before tip, is a matchup between two premier power forwards — Notre Dame senior Bonzie Colson and Michigan State sophomore Miles Bridges. Both received a plethora of preseason hype as potential national players of the year. If Bridges was choice 1A, Colson was 1B. That’s nice to talk about, but Colson wants no part of a one-on-one focus.

“Our group is different; it’s a team game,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to play again. Play our game.”

And play it in an atmosphere that will remind Notre Dame of what’s waiting come conference play. This is a core that has won at Duke. At North Carolina. At Louisville. At North Carolina State. Opening this stretch with a win at DePaul and beating Wichita State quickly re-established its “road dawg” mentality. But nothing Notre Dame has done to date may be enough to prepare for what’s — and who's — waiting.

The Irish better have some bark. And some bite. And buckets.

“This atmosphere will be as good as any one we’ve played in,” said Brey, who’s only been in the building once — to watch former Irish point guard Tory Jackson win a state championship as a high school senior in 2006. “There’s a confidence playing away from our building.”

And playing on the big stage. Long before either team was ranked in the top five, this game got its own night when the Challenge schedule was finalized in early June. Everybody in both leagues — and around the country — will be watching.

“It shows how far this program has come the last few years,” said Irish junior guard Rex Pflueger. “We’ve been great every year, but the recognition is just starting to come. We’ve got to make sure we keep our minds right and keep moving forward.

“We need to stay on our game and keep attacking.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Big Ten/ACC Challenge

WHO: No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) vs. No. 3 Michigan State (5-1).

WHERE: Breslin Center (15,000), East Lansing, Mich.

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN.

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: Guard Joshua Langford scored a career-high 23 points and Michigan State smothered then-No. 9 North Carolina into 24.6 shooting from the field, 5.6 percent from 3, both record lows in UNC history, in Sunday’s 63-45 win in the Victory Bracket championship game of the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Ore. The Spartans had a 52-36 rebounding advantage and forced 16 turnovers. ... Michigan State also beat DePaul and Connecticut during the Thanksgiving weekend tournament. State’s three opponents shot a combined 28.4 percent from the field, 21.4 percent from 3. … Michigan State holds opponents to 63.0 ppg., 33.8 percent from the field, 33.6 percent from 3. … Ten Spartans average double figures for minutes, five for points led by power forward Miles Bridges (15.2). … Freshman power forward Jaren Jackson Jr., who played last year at LaLumiere School in LaPorte, starts and is averaging 10 points and 8.2 rebounds a game. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 60-36, including 25-22 on the road. This is Notre Dame’s first trip to East Lansing since a 91-89 victory on Feb. 2, 1974 at Jenison Fieldhouse. ... Michigan State has won three of the last four in the series. The win for Notre Dame came in overtime, 79-78, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 3, 2014 at Purcell Pavilion. … Michigan State is 7-10 and 6-2 at home all-time in the Challenge; Notre Dame is 3-1 with three straight wins – Michigan State (2014), Illinois (2015) and Iowa (2016). … Irish coach Mike Brey is six wins shy of becoming the winningest coach in program history. … Notre Dame has had six days away from game competition since last week’s victory over then-No. 6 Wichita State in the Maui Jim Maui Invitational championship. … The Irish look to start 7-0 for a second straight season. … Michigan State opens Big Ten play Sunday at home against Nebraska. … Notre Dame returns home Sunday to play St. Francis Brooklyn at 2 p.m.

QUOTING: “We see it. It’s something that doesn’t mean much to us right now. We’ve got to keep playing and keep winning. We’re excited about what we can do and we’re excited about the group of guys that we have.”

-Notre Dame senior guard Matt Farrell on being ranked fifth in this week’s Associated Press poll.