Noie: Can Notre Dame accelerate its hoops process at Rupp Arena?
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ahead of a weekend visit to a place that quickens the college basketball pulse, Notre Dame first had to drill down to the heart of the matter.
It’s something that ties the past to the present and, hopefully for a program on the verge of something, a future that can take a leap Saturday with a visit to Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
Following a five-point loss to No. 22 Ohio State in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge, coach Mike Brey gathered his guys and gave them a glimpse of the bigger picture. Yes, they were up against it two seasons ago when the junior core was freshmen and they were asked to play major minutes and large roles, something they weren’t prepared to do while going 3-15 and finishing last in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But that group took steps. They were small, but they were steps.
Last season, when this nucleus was sophomores and juniors, they were asked to find a way out of a 2-6 league hole. The Irish won eight of their final 12 regular-season games, then won an ACC tournament game. More steps, however small.
That was character-building stuff, but everyone around the program knows that eventually more will be required. And expected. And demanded. It’s reached that point. Enough building character and planning for a successful future. For this group, for this program, the future’s here. Saturday at Rupp Arena.
Those freshmen and sophomores of two seasons ago are juniors and seniors and the backbone of the program. They’re not wandering the college hoops wilderness. They’re older, more experienced and smarter.
“We’re just keeping our heads down and working hard every day,” point guard Prentiss Hubb said after again coming close to a win over a ranked team Tuesday. “We’re going to move on and get better.”
That’s why Brey borrowed a page from former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie this week when talking with his team and about his team. It’s a process, he said. Trust it. The Irish weren’t quite ready to trust two years ago. They were only a little more prepared to trust last season.
That’s all part of the process, one that has seen the Irish play 23 consecutive games against ranked teams and leave the floor each time without a win. That’s a lot of chances over the last three years, a lot of opportunity lost. Sometimes, the Irish were in position to win some of those. Sometimes, they weren’t.
It’s time to get a few of those. Why not Saturday?
“That’s our process now,” Brey said. “We have another opportunity. That’s kind of how I’ve talked with them.”
Notre Dame was in film study Thursday scouting Kentucky when Brey stopped the session. The announcers on the screen of Kentucky’s most recent game — a 17-point loss Sunday to Georgia Tech — talked of how the Wildcats already were cornered in this young season. They’d opened ranked No. 10, slipped to 20 and likely will fall out of the next Associated Press poll when it’s released Monday.
Having lost three straight, it was as if the sky was falling in the Commonwealth. Think of what it would be like back home if the Irish football program lost three straight. That’s what it’s like for Big Blue Nation, which is really blue with the ‘Cats current streak.
Don’t feel that bad for those guys, Brey said. They have at least three first-round NBA draft picks on the roster. There’s a ton of talent. They’ll eventually figure it out and win their usual 20-plus games and be among the elite in the Southeastern Conference.
Besides, Brey wondered Thursday, aren’t the Irish a little cornered themselves? They’re 1-2. They’ve lost to two ranked teams. They’re staring at a schedule that still has on it Kentucky and Duke and Purdue and Syracuse and Virginia before 2021 arrives.
“It’s not like we’ve got one where we can say, ‘Well, there’s a win that will make us feel better about ourselves in December,’” Brey said. “There’s not one of those on the schedule where you can just say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ll get that one.’
“Both teams are pushed back against the wall a little bit right now.”
While the Wildcats spent much of the past week figuring out who they are, the Irish believe they have that answer. We saw it Tuesday at home against Ohio State. They’re a group that’s kind of found its flow offensively, especially when they downshift and go four perimeter players around one post player. They can spread the floor and spread teams out. When they move it and share it and take care of it, they can get to 85 points as easily as they did the other night.
They still don’t have that one marquee win to show for it, but the Irish have taken some additional steps since tumbling into that 28-point hole at Michigan State in the opener.
“I think we’ve kind of found a little more about ourselves these three games,” Brey said. “We do know how to play, especially on the offensive end. This group is now starting to hit their stride.
“They’re starting to grow up and look more like young men than the boys when we played them as freshmen and sophomores.”
To continue that growth, the Irish have to clear that ranked team/good team/hostile atmosphere win hurdle. Rupp Arena can be among the most intimidating places in the country to play. The place is warehouse huge with the fans often on top of the action. They’re loud. They’re passionate. They know and love their hoops. They don’t miss much.
Instead of the usual 23,500 reaching high into the arena rafters, there’s expected to be only about 3,000. It won’t be as intimidating, which could play into the Irish favor. They’ll need to get off to a solid start and play the way they did Tuesday. They also need to do something that those teams the previous two years often didn’t when it came time to play on the road, when it came time to play a ranked team, when came time to win in a big-time road atmosphere.
WHO: Notre Dame (1-2) vs. Kentucky (1-3).
WHERE: Rupp Arena (23,500), Lexington, Ky.
WHEN: Saturday at noon.
TICKETS: None available. Kentucky has sold its maximum allowed (3,000) under coronavirus pandemic protocol.
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: Kentucky dropped its third straight game this early in the season for the first time since 2008 following Sunday’s 79-62 loss to Georgia Tech. Freshman Terrence Clark led the Wildcats with 22 points. Kentucky committed 21 turnovers and allowed Georgia Tech 15 steals. The Wildcats gave up 45 points in the second half and were outscored 36-20 in the paint. … After beating Morehead State at home, Kentucky has lost to Richmond (home), Kansas (neutral site) and Georgia Tech (neutral site). It marks the first time since 2007 that the Wildcats have lost three straight this early in a season. … Kentucky returns zero starters off last year’s team that finished 25-6 overall, 15-3 and first place in the Southeastern Conference. Kentucky was picked this preseason second in the SEC. … Power forward Olivier Sarr played last season at Wake Forest. He scored 30 points with 17 rebounds, both career highs, in an 84-73 victory over Notre Dame on Feb. 29. … Rupp Arena is the largest basketball-only college arena in the country. … The Wildcats are 58-42 all-time against the Atlantic Coast Conference. … Kentucky has won at least 25 games in each of the last five years. … Since 2001, Kentucky has had 33 first-round NBA draft picks; Notre Dame has had three (Troy Murphy, Ryan Humphrey, Jerian Grant). … This is the first of a three-year series. The teams are scheduled to play next season at Madison Square Garden before a 2022 game at Purcell Pavilion. … Kentucky leads the all-time series 43-19, 8-0 at Rupp. … Notre Dame looks for its first win at an SEC school since 2005 when it beat Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala. … This is Notre Dame’s first visit to Lexington since Jan. 18, 2003, an 88-73 loss when the Irish were ranked No. 10. The teams have split the last four meetings after Kentucky had won 10 straight. … This is the first meeting between the teams since Kentucky’s 68-66 victory over Notre Dame on March 28, 2015 in the NCAA Tournament Midwest Regional final in Cleveland.
QUOTING: "I've gotta get our team better. I've got a full house. I'm up for it. Let's go. I'm not afraid of it. At the end of the day, we just have to look differently, look like a basketball team."
-Kentucky coach John Calipari