The Notre Dame basketball team is in a position it has not face this season as it prepares for Saturday’s home game against Rutgers at Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. The Irish have lost back-to-back games for the first time all year after dropping first a hard fought home game to Connecticut last Saturday and then another close game at St. John’s Tuesday night.
The final margin in the games was seven and four points, respectively. While Notre Dame (14-3, 2-2 Big East) had not tasted consecutive losses prior to the last seven days, such slides are not uncommon once conference play begins.
“We’re in that mode that so many people in this league get into where right now we’re in search of one of those valuable one-game win streaks in Big East play,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said on Thursday during the Big East coaches’ call. “We’re thrilled to get back home and see if we can kind of recalibrate ourselves Saturday night against Rutgers.”
Typically a home game would be a welcome prospect, and for most concerned it is, but the Manti Te’o spectacle is looming over the Notre Dame campus as the weekend approaches. The world is watching that saga play out in front of their eyes right now as the basketball team, part of a close-knit campus community that saw Te’o and other football players storm the court just weeks ago in ND’s upset win over Kentucky, prepares for its next game.
“I don’t think our players or us (coaches) have really been able to get our arms around it,” Brey said just hours after the story of the Te’o hoax broke. “Maybe that goes for everybody in this whole thing. It’s kind of confusing. I would just rather it not be a distraction here for our basketball team over the next two days, because we have a very important game on Saturday.”
The Irish opened Big East play with wins over Seton Hall and a ranked Cincinnati team, but neither those wins nor the effort that went into them carried over into the next two games against the Huskies and Red Storm. Brey was particularly displeased with not only his team’s offensive “rhythm” in those games, but also its overall hardnosed play at both ends of the court. He says he spent close to an hour Thursday morning focusing on his team’s ability to compete at a higher level.
“I just didn’t think we stuck our noses in there as much as we needed to on Tuesday, so we did that for about 45 minutes,” Brey offered. “I think for us defensively to be able to play man to man and we have shown we can do that - I think we have to do that more consistently.
Brey added that getting players like getting Cooley and Scott Martin going again is about practicing with players “sticking their nose in there” and “hit the reset button”. Cooley is averaging 14.8 points and 10.7 rebounds this season, but he is coming off a 10 point, four rebound performance in 18 minutes in the loss to St. John’s.
Part of Cooley’s problem in that game was foul trouble, but the rest was inconsistent play that extended back to last week’s UConn loss. Brey says there is no need to try to give Cooley an extra pep talk now after the physical message that was given to his big man when he sat the bench down the stretch in Tuesday’s loss.
“I think there was a pretty strong message sent with how we finished the game with Tom Knight and not him and had a chance to win the game and Tom Knight gave us great minutes,” Brey said candidly. “I think Jack as a senior and a captain – just looking at him this morning (Thursday) I think there was a different bounce about him.”
Knight ended Tuesday’s game with six points and three rebounds while shooting 3-of-4 from the floor in 17 minutes of action. Martin, part of a group of seniors whose careers are now winding down, was scoreless while taking just two shots in his team’s fifth straight regular season loss to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. Martin is averaging 8.7 points as his long career reaches its final stages.
“The one thing I talked about in front of our team with our seniors is – fellas you only have 15 college games left in your career,” Brey said. “So, I said I think we really just need to value every one of them. He’s gotten the message and I think he’s plugged-in to bounce back.”
Rutgers (12-4, 3-2) is coming off its own close victory after downing South Florida 70-67 Thursday night. The 3-2 start to Big East play is the best for the Scarlet Knights since doing it to begin the 1999-2000 season.
Rutgers is led in scoring by Eli Carter. The sophomore guard is averaging 15.9 points while shooting 27-of-88 (.307) from three-point range. Fellow guard Mack Myles is the only other double-digit scorer on the Scarlet Knights roster with a 13.0 scoring average. Myles has connected on an amazing 50% of his 62 three-point tries this season.
Those two are the obvious targets the Irish defense will contend with, but as Notre Dame found out when UConn’s Tyler Olander, who scored a career-high 16 points against the Irish, played above his scouting report last Saturday, other players can bite too. Austin Johnson, a senior forward, is one Brey says “gives big guys fits”.
“I just think he plays so hard,” Brey said of the 6’8” forward. “I don’t watch them all the time, I watch some tapes, but I know against us he plays really hard. Against (Luke) Harangody (and) against Cooley he’s been a guy that’s been hard for us. Certainly, we’ve gotta have a special focus on doing a better job of keeping him off the backboard and not letting him run wild in the paint.”
Johnson scored 10 points on 5-for-9 shooting in Notre Dame’s 65-58 loss last year in Piscataway. He is averaging 5.9 points and 2.3 rebounds through 16 games this season. Rutgers’ top rebounder is Wally Judge at 6.2 a game. Dane Miller also pulls down 5.8 boards.
Notre Dame had won 17 consecutive home games before last week’s loss to the Huskies. The Irish are still 111-8 in their last 119 home games at Purcell. Losing two straight games is part of what Brey termed the “ebb and flow of what happens in league play”, but protecting the home court is important at this time of year.
“We’ve had the strongest home court, but that disappeared Saturday against Connecticut,” Brey commented. “One of the messages I’ll give our team is, Rutgers beat St. John’s on the road (but) we didn’t. It’s real simple.”
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is expected to be at Saturday’s game to receive a charity donation from Notre Dame’s auction to benefit New Jersey’s storm victims that are still trying to rebuild their lives.