Notes: Notre Dame overdue to play well at Bankers Life Fieldhouse

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — The big basketball barn in this Circle City once was a home away from home for No. 18 Notre Dame.

It’s since become a house of horrors for the Irish (8-2), who have struggled to win games — games they’ve dominated at times — the last two Decembers at the Crossroads Classic.

Though it ranks a distant fourth behind Butler, Purdue and Indiana when it comes to fan turnout in the annual doubleheader, Notre Dame had won three straight at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It beat Purdue in 2012, beat Indiana in 2013 and beat the Boilermakers again in 2014, a game still remembered for the drive and dunk of Irish guard Demetrius Jackson over 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas.

Notre Dame seemingly was on its way to four wins in a row in 2015. It led Indiana by 10 at the half and stretched the advantage to 16 with 16 minutes remaining. Some media who cover the Hoosiers wanted coach Tom Crean fired at intermission. After the final 20 minutes, and after Indiana roared back to win it, 80-73, they were ready to give Crean a contract extension.

Last December, it was same story, different state team for Notre Dame. It led Purdue by as many as 17 before being outscored 48-29 in the second half of an 86-81 loss.

Notre Dame enters Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m., FOX) against Indiana (5-5), at 3-3 in the Crossroads, which runs through at least 2019.

“We were on such a good run before the last two,” said coach Mike Brey. “We’ve had some tough ones there.”

Saturday is expected to be another one. Indiana has played well in spurts against good teams — Duke, Louisville — but hasn’t been able to close out close games. The Hoosiers prefer to pound the ball into the paint offensively and employ a lot of Virginia-like principles (pack-line) on defense. They’re likely to give the Irish a hard time, especially if they’re allowed to hang around and get some confidence. Ball State anyone?

“Putting them away early is something that we need to focus on,” said Irish senior power forward Bonzie Colson. “It’s going to be another fun game. It’s a tough, challenging game.”

In a tough, challenging atmosphere for reasons besides the obvious. Brey prefers his team gets at least a shoot-around, and often an all-out practice, at road sites. Did it at Michigan State. Did it last week at Delaware. Can’t do it in Bankers Life. The building was unavailable Friday because of an NBA game between Detroit and Indiana. A Saturday morning shoot-around also was a no-go.

The first time the Irish step on the court will be the 27 minutes they get to get loose following the end of the Butler-Purdue game.

“Sometimes it’s like that,” Colson said. “It’s like an AAU tournament game where you have to go out there and play. We’ll just show up and play.”

Interested observer

Irish senior power forward Martinas Geben wouldn’t normally care about the basketball soap opera that is LaMelo and LiAngelo Ball.

But when it was announced recently that the Ball brothers signed with a professional team in Prienai, Lithuania, it held Geben’s interest a little longer. Geben is a native of Vilnius, Lithuania which is about an hour away from Prienai.

What’s in store there for the Balls in Geben’s homeland?

“It’s going to be a big culture shock for them from the food to the lack of English, a different style of play,” Geben said. “They’re going to need a couple Big Baller winter jackets.”

Two members of the Lithuania junior national team who won a gold medal this summer in the World University Games — Geben also played on that team — have played for the team that the Balls will join. Geben has communicated with those junior team members on the impending circus that’s sure to follow the Balls’ arrival and, eventually, their departure.

“They’re kind of watching everything unfold with anticipation,” Geben said. “It definitely will be interesting to see how everything happens.”

Knowing the country, the style of play, the culture, how does Geben see it all playing out for the brothers Ball?

“They’ll have to adjust,” he said, “if they want to survive.”

Prienai is 5,900 miles away from the Balls’ home in Chino Hills, Calif. In October, LaMelo Ball quit his Chino Hills High School team, which is coached by former Notre Dame power forward Dennis Latimore.

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Bankers Life Fieldhouse has not been kind to Austin Torres and Notre Dame the last two years at the Crossroads Classic. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)ia FTP