If you were a fan of Notre Dame basketball back in the 70’s and 80’s then you remember the epic battles that took place between the Blue Demons and the Fighting Irish at the A.C.C and the Rosemont Horizon. Although the match-up doesn’t carry the same weight these days, it still conjures up memories of years gone by, when these two teams get together. Saturday was no different, with former DePaul Coach Joey Meyer in the house, and former Irish star LaPhonso Ellis part of the television broadcast. The Irish, who have been showing signs of playing better basketball, but are still trying to find a way to put it together for a full 40 minutes, would take on a Blue Demon squad that is once again in the midst of another rebuilding season under 3rd year Coach Oliver Purnell. While trying to find their identity, DePaul has, at the very least, found a way to be more competitive this year then in years past.
DePaul would take an early 10-3 lead on the strength of their uncharacteristically good outside shooting and rebounding. Guard Jamee Crockett led the way early on for the Blue Demons, and was accountable for 8 of their first 10 points, including 2-2 from 3 point land. As hot as DePaul was early on, the Irish were just the opposite, as they were all too happy to settle for quick shots, were careless with the ball, and allowed the Blue Demons to beat them on the glass. Notre Dame has had trouble getting out of the gate over the last month, and this game was no different. The Irish finally started to put it together around the 12 minute mark of the first half, by getting the ball to the rim, and hitting consistently from outside. Although Jack Cooley would eventually be the star of the game, it was Irish forward Tom Knight who led an 8-0 run in the first half, that would help secure a 39-30 Notre Dame lead going into the break.
In the second half the Irish would stay aggressive and build a lead of 12 by the 17 minute mark, but DePaul would not give up. The Blue Demons started to chip away and erase the Irish lead quickly, and eventually tied the game up at 55-55, with just over 9:30 to go in the game. DePaul fought their way back with the help of more defensive lapses for the Irish underneath, and dreadful shooting by Notre Dame from beyond the arc, as they connected on just 4-13 attempts. When the Irish struggle from behind the line, it allows teams to just collapse down low and clog the lane, making it very difficult for them to penetrate successfully. The game would remain close for the remainder of regulation, before eventually heading into overtime. The Irish would finally take control in the extra session, with Eric Atkins scoring the first 5 points, and Notre Dame would pull out the victory 79-71. Irish forward Jack Cooley paced the Irish with his 14th double-double of the season, ending the game with 26 points and 16 boards.
Although the Irish were victorious over DePaul, there still were glaring inconsistencies that Coach Brey needs to address. The Irish had multiple defensive lapses that led to easy baskets for the Blue Demons, and failed to protect the basketball or control the tempo of the game. Cameron Biedscheid and Zach Auguste would combine for 13 points on 6-8 shooting in the first half, while adding a nice spark off the bench, but they would mysteriously disappear from the court in the second half of play, combining for just 4 shots the rest of the way. This type of coaching style is all too familiar for Irish fans, as things get tough, Brey refuses to use anyone but his starters. Biedscheid and Auguste add some sorely missing athleticism to an Irish squad that severely needs it, but apparently Brey will always struggle to break out of the 3point mentality that his mentor instilled in him.
With the Irish riding a current 3-game winning streak, they would head to New York to take on #9 ranked Syracuse in the dome. We were nervous about this game, as the Orange were in the midst of a 2-game losing streak(both road losses), and conventional wisdom led most to believe that this game would be very difficult for the Irish to pull out. For Notre Dame to succeed in this game, they would have to be consistent from outside, in order to break-down the zone defense that the Jim Boeheim led squad is so famous for.
Once again, the Irish would struggle from tip-off, allowing Syracuse to score 10 unanswered points to start the game. Thankfully for Irish fans, they would follow that up with an 11 point streak of their own and stormed back into the game with a couple of key outside shots, and solid offensive play. That was where the good news ended for Notre Dame though, as they were plagued the rest of the way with turnovers, horrific shooting, and inconsistent play. Notre Dame at least showed some signs of life on the defensive side of the ball, and that allowed them to at least stay within striking distance at halftime, trailing just 30-24 at intermission. The fact that the Irish were down only 6 at half, was actually a good sign, seeing the Syracuse had gone to the line 9 times, compared to once for Notre Dame. The Irish also had committed 9 turnovers by half, which is only one less than their season average per game.
The second half would be no better though, as the Irish offense would continue to struggle, with very little success underneath, and even less from outside. The Orange would have the game completely under control by the 12:00 mark, pulling ahead by 15 and would eventually win the Big East contest 73-47. While the Irish did a better job of not turning the ball over in the second-half(2) they just could not find the basket. In one of their worst performances of the year from the floor, the Irish hit only 6- 20 from downtown, and shot just .346 from the field overall. Notre Dame literally had no answers to what Syracuse was doing defensively all game long, and the 47 point total equals the worst output of the season(Georgetown loss). As good as Jack Cooley and Tom Knight had been playing over the last few weeks, they were equally unimpressive Monday night, and the backcourt of Atkins and Grant struggled with distribution, holding onto the ball, and getting to the rim.
Syracuse took advantage of Notre Dame turnovers, inability to penetrate the lane, or hit from outside and did so without their most consistent scorer, in James Southerland(Eligibility issues). It truly was the worst effort all year long by Notre Dame, and that’s saying something after the Georgetown debacle. The lack of speed and athleticism was never so evident, as what was displayed in New York. That’s not to say that the Irish have no speed or athleticism, just not nearly enough to overcome an effort like this. Once again, the Irish bench played a very small role in this game, as Brey refuses to acknowledge them. While Cameron Biedscheid did grab 28 minutes in a reserve role, he struggle mightily, shooting just 3-12 from the field, including 1-8 from beyond the arc. Zach Auguste, who provided a great spark off the bench against DePaul, saw the floor for only 10 minutes and went 0-2 from the field. We struggle with reserve center Garrick Sherman even needing to put on his uniform anymore, as he has scored 0 points and enjoyed a total of 3 minutes off the bench combined over the last 3 games.
This game was completely dominated by Syracuse, and while playing at the dome is not an easy task for any team, the Irish players and coaches looked lost and confused for most of the game. There are glaring deficiencies with this squad right now, and some horribly inconsistent play that need to be addressed, but sadly we believe this is what the 2012-13 squad will look like the rest of the way. They most likely will sneak into the NCAA tournament, but it will be just another embarrassing first round loss, that Irish fans will have to suffer through. While Coach Brey deserves a lot of the blame for what is going on in South Bend right now, the players deserve their share also. There seems to be an awful lot of questions right now for Notre Dame basketball, and seemingly no answers, and that is not a good thing this late in the season.
It gets no easier for the Irish this week as #11 Louisville will visit Purcell Pavilion on Saturday, followed by DePaul making the 90 mile trek to South Bend. ESPN College Game-Day will visit Notre Dame for the match-up vs. Louisville, and that game can be seen on ESPN/ESPN 3 with tip-off set for 9:00p,(EST), The DePaul game set for Wednesday(Feb 13th) will start at 7:00pm(EST) and can be seen on ESPN 3/ ESPN Full-Court.
Two points worth mentioning from the world of Notre Dame Basketball. Mike Brey is actually now tied with legendary former coach of St. Johns, Lou Carnesecca(4th all time) with 138 wins in the Big East. It has also been confirmed that Irish will still play in the Big East next year, even though there was heavy speculation that Notre Dame would seek a buy-out, and start ACC play as early as the 2013-14 season.