NOTRE DAME, Ind. – It has been nearly a week since the Notre Dame basketball last took the court for its 64-50 win over then No. 8 Kentucky last Thursday night. With no games to play over the last six days things have been quieter for Mike Brey’s Irish, but the head coach said on Wednesday that it has been some needed down time for the team.
“I think, number one, getting some rest mentally and physically was a key,” Brey said during his weekly media gathering. “Because we had a real tough stretch, and we do have some guys that play long minutes for us. (Scott) Martin’s always gonna have some issues with that knee that we’ve gotta rest it.”
Beyond the physical rest his team has caught-up on this week, the stretch without a game has paid off in another way.
“What I’ve found is, we’ve really been able to concentrate academically,” Brey said. “We’ve done some things with study hall, because the last week of classes sometimes is more important than the exam week next week. Basketball, up until today’s practice, has kind of been a backburner issue since the Kentucky game.”
Brey even came up with a slogan to use for his team in its academic pursuits.
“I said Lance Armstrong had ‘Live Strong’. I said of course we can’t use those bracelets anymore because of all the drugs he used, but I said maybe I should make bracelets for you guys (that say) ‘Finish Strong’ academically.
Notre Dame’s win over Kentucky last week was yet another notch in the belt for a program that traditionally fared well against high caliber opponents inside Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center.
“They took it very matter of fact,” Brey said of his team’s reaction in the aftermath of the victory. “They weren’t jumping around in there. I think they were pleased at their business-like delivery. What I’ve loved about this group and maybe our program is when the lights have been bright in this building we’ve delivered. I’m really proud of that and this group is mature about it.”
His group is so mature about it business that they expressed dismay to Brey afterward at why their student section rushed the floor after the win over the defending national champions. Brey was fine with it though.
“As I tried t explain to them, there was such good energy in the building that night and there was a celebration of a lot of things going on there,” Brey explained. “I’ll be darned if any usher or me were going to stop Manti (Te’o) and the defensive line from charging the floor.”
“Our students just wanted to celebrate,” Brey continued. “I thought it was awesome. I know some people have been critical of it (but) I love it. It was great.”
Brey had plenty of reason to let the bull rush of a celebration continue.
“When you see our defensive line in their three-point stances as the clock’s ticking down – I’ll be darned if I’m getting anywhere close to those guys.”
Eight games into the season the Irish are still in search of exactly who they are at the offensive end of the floor. Jack Cooley leads four players who are averaging double figures at 14.1 a game. Jerian Grant (13.0), Eric Atkins (11.0) and Garrick Sherman (10.0) are the others. Despite that balance Brey is not sure exactly who his team is right now.
“I do feel we’re finding our identity,” Brey began. “We’re still in the process of finding our identity. I think up until December 21 is a key time for us to keep doing that.”
The Irish have five games, including their home game against Niagara on the 21st, in that stretch Brey referred to. It begins with this Saturday’s home game against Brown and then continues a week later against Purdue in Indianapolis.
Figuring out things like the role of players coming off the bench and how to get Pat Connaughton, who is averaging 7.0 points, more involved offensively are two of his bigger questions over the next couple weeks.
“It’s funny, I don’t know if you’ll ever be a finished product, because you get two guys going and one guy needs rehab,” Brey joked of the yo-yo effect that occurs in the flow of the season. “This guy’s going and I think that’s the juggling.”
Brey has six players who have played in all eight games this season. A seventh, Scott Martin, missed a game due to injury. Determining if there is an eighth player, Zach Auguste being the most likely candidate, to add to the mix is also something he will continue to look at.
Big East The Best?
Notre Dame’s Big East Conference opener is exactly a month away, so Brey has not even started to “digest” what is out there. Notre Dame is among five Big East teams currently ranked in both the AP and Coaches’ polls this week (Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Georgetown are the others).
“I think we’ll be the deepest league again,” Brey said of the Big East. “The misnomer is because of conference realignment these teams have left the Big East already.”
“We still have, I think, the best basketball conference and will get the most NCAA (Tournament) bids. Managing that and playing the ‘A’ schedule is a thing that concerns me. It’s a great challenge for us.”
The Irish open conference play when they host Seton Hall on Jan. 5. They have two games each this season with Cincinnati and Louisville, which are ranked as high as 5th and 11th, respectively, this week.
On The Trail
With a break in Notre Dame’s game action since last Thursday, Brey was able to get out and see Indiana recent signees like V.J. Beachem, Demetrius Jackson and Austin Torres in action. With those players now officially in the fold, Brey says he watches them play in a different light.
“When I watched them, Friday and Saturday I saw them, I’m thinking about next year’s team,” Brey conveyed. “I’m away from this year’s team and I’m thinking about…next year’s team…guards…we’re a little crowded in the perimeter. How do we work all that out? Do we play smaller? What are we gonna do with guys? The redshirt thing comes up again. I think about all those things.”
Brey was able to see Jackson, from local Mishawaka Marian High, score 39 points in a victory. He said he is already smiling thinking about how to use he and fellow point guard Eric Atkins will complement each other when they are together next year.