In another crazy year of college basketball, where seemingly no team wants to emerge as the dominant one, the Irish are no different. After a rough 4 game stretch that saw Notre Dame lose three out of four to teams they are as good as, if not better, Mike Brey knew this week he would have to be a teacher, and not just a coach. Even though the Irish 2012-13 squad is full of veterans, somehow they had lost their way and in serious need of a beacon in the night. The Irish had early season success by consistently getting to the rim, out-rebounding teams, and playing smart defense, but the last two weeks have been just the exact opposite. During this stretch, Brey’s squad have allowed teams to out-hustle them, beat them on the glass, and play timid on offense. In a very crucial stretch that could determine if the Irish get an invitation to the NCAA Tournament at the end of the year, it is imperative that Brey reminds his team of what their strengths are, and how to consistently implement them on the court.
The first task at hand of refocusing his squad would not be an easy one, as they would hit the road to take on University of South Florida, in Tampa. While most would admit that this should be an easier win for Notre Dame, when your team is playing as inconsistent as the Irish have lately, nothing is a foregone conclusion. The Bulls, while not considered a strong threat this year, are the same team that defeated Georgetown, the same Georgetown team that just dominated the Irish on their own home-court in the previous game.
As the Irish took the floor against South Florida, it felt like this game would be no different, Notre Dame continued to give up easy baskets, and watch their opponent drop shot after shot from the floor. South Florida knocked down four 3-pointers in the first half and was consistently a step ahead of the Irish, as the Bulls took a 35-28 lead into halftime. Thankfully for Irish fans, the second-half would be a different story. Tom Knight, who was starting in favor of injured Scott Martin(knee), played a great game, and paced an Irish second half run that resembled one of early season success. Notre Dame ended up shooting 9-19 from beyond the arc(47%)and also out-rebounded the Bulls, grabbing 32 boards, compared to just 14 for South Florida. If you follow the Irish Men’s squad, then you know those numbers are very close to what the Irish averaged over their first 15 games, in which they went 14-1. Two late game free throws from Eric Atkins put the Irish up 71-60, and the Irish held off a late game surge by the Bulls , to notch their 15th win of the season, with a final of 73-65. Knight did a wonderful job in filling in for Martin, as he provided a season high 17 points, and Jerian Grant contributed 18 points, and 8 assist
Feeling good about playing a better 2nd half in Tampa, the Irish would now welcome to Purcell Pavilion, one the hottest teams in all of college basketball. Villanova had an incredible week, which included victories over #5 Louisville and #3 Syracuse. Although the Wildcats have been wildly inconsistent this season, and have been plagued by turnovers and erratic guard play, they had hopes of keeping the momentum going against the Irish. Notre Dame finally found a way to get out the gates early as they took an early lead, with a 3-point shot from Jerian Grant, a couple of nice baskets underneath from Jack
Cooley, and Tom Knight also added two baseline jumpers. Villanova would bounce back quickly though, with some nice play underneath by Wildcat forward Mouphtaou Yarou. With help also coming from getting to the line and knocking down their free throws, the Jay Wright led club, would eventually take a 31-29 lead into halftime.
One could describe the 2nd half as the Cameron Biedscheid show, as the Freshmen scored 15 of 18 points in the last 20 minutes, and was 4-5 from 3-point land. Although Biedscheid grabbed the headlines, Jack Cooley bounced back nicely with 17 point, and 16 rebound effort. Junior Jerian Grant, had one of his most complete weeks of his career, already having a strong game against South Florida and now scoring 12 points, dishing out 10 assist, and grabbing 4 steals vs. Villanova. Grant did struggle a bit from the field, but did find a way to knock down 4-7 from beyond the arc. Notre Dame would end up taking
this back and forth contest, 65-60, and there are signs that maybe the Irish are starting to figure what makes them successful on the court again, with smart guard play, consistent outside shooting, and strong effort. Notre Dame held Villanova’s leading scorer (Pinkston- 11 points) in check, and forced 9 Wildcat turnovers.
There have been two consistent numbers for the Irish in their wins and their losses. If their rebounds are close to 30 or above, and they shoot over 40% from 3-point land, then chances are very good that they will win the game. In both wins against South Florida and Villanova, the Irish did just that, and walked away with victories in both matches. As mentioned earlier, Notre Dame is no different than most schools, and will have times in which they struggle on the court. As long as Coach Brey can keep them focused, and he and his staff continually preach effort, smart play, and teamwork, Notre Dame will find themselves dancing come March. My fear is that this club will hit another stretch like this, and it will come at the end of the season, and Irish fans will once again need to find a different team to root for after the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
This is another incredibly important week, as Notre Dame(17-4 5-3) looks to “enhance” their tourney resume. The Irish will hit the road to face DePaul on Saturday, and will head to Syracuse, for arguably their most important game of the season. The game vs. DePaul on Saturday can be seen on ESPN 2 and 3, with tip-off at 2pm. And the game against Syracuse will start at 7pm, and will be the featured “Big Monday” game on ESPN.