To say mid-February Big East basketball, or even college basketball in general, in mid-February is a "grind" is probably an overused cliché. To say the Notre Dame basketball team is grinding right now is probably an understatement.
The Fighting Irish (20-5, 8-4 Big East), winners of five of their last six games, have seen three of those games (all wins) go to overtime. The most famous was last Saturday's 104-101 quintuple-overtime win over Louisville. The Irish followed that with Wednesday's 82-78 OT win over DePaul after needing overtime to beat the Blue Demons 79-71 just 11 days before that.
"I feel like in the last two games we've played three games, basically," Irish head coach Mike Brey said this week. "But I'm really proud of our group to bounce back and find a way to win in a tough game after all the energy and emotion they invested Saturday night against Louisville."
While the last two games may seem like three, the three overtime games in an 11-day span magnify the wear and tear on Brey's players. It could be very telling over the next three days when the Irish make Big East trips to Providence (Noon ET Saturday) and Pittsburgh (7 p.m. ET Monday).
"I'm very concerned about it," Brey said of the extra game time taking its toll on his team. "We've really paced ourselves as far as we're not going to practice long."
"We bring our chiropractor and a little bit of a massage therapist on the road with us," he continued. "If we can get through Monday night we don't play then until Sunday (Feb. 24). Then we can get some rest back, but stealing time, especially for our guards to get rest, is the number one concern for me."
Brey says practice reps are not as important at this point in the season with a roster comprised of the veterans he has. Walk-throughs and players going "five-on-zero" have been more the order during practice this week.
Point guard Eric Atkins has been Notre Dame's ironman all season. Atkins has played a team-high 38.4 minutes a game this season. He played 60 of a possible 65 minutes in the 5 OT game and then played 42 of 45 minutes Wednesday night against DePaul. Brey says Atkins was wiped-out with about six minutes to play in regulation against DePaul and asked for a rest.
Brey subbed early and often Wednesday night against DePaul, and the plan seemed to work early. He had hockey line exchanges that saw up to three players at a time enter the game together and the Irish pushed their lead to 14 points with about a minute to go in the first half. Things caught up with them midway through the second half though in a game that helped the Irish find out about themselves through the adversity.
"We have learned that we are in great shape and that we can play through being tired," Irish center Jack Cooley said after the latest overtime victory. "We know all of our situations, because we go through them a hundred times in practice. We just have to go out there and play well."
Cooley registered his 17th double-double of the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds in 42 minutes against DePaul.
Overtimes aside, the Irish have looked flat out of synch at many points over their last 10 games. The stretch coincides with the recurring knee injury Scott Martin suffered during his 12-point effort in a Jan. 7 win at Cincinnati.
Martin, who is Notre Dame's floor general, nursed the injury and struggled over the next four games and has missed six consecutive games since then. The Fighting Irish have missed not only Martin's floor guidance, but also his willingness to shoot from long range.
"The one thing we lost with Scott was the best three-point shooter in the league at that point," Brey commented. "He was shooting 50-percent. It was such a weapon for us. Him (being) able to knock-down the three. We changed completely when you took that threat out of there. "
Even after missing six games, Martin's 31 three-pointers made narrowly trails Pat Connaugton's team-high 36 as well as Eric Atkins' 34 and Jerian Grant and Cam Biedscheid's 33 treys. Brey considers Atkins to be the most willing of Notre Dame's active perimeter players to fearlessly take three-point shots.
Martin's absence has created a "developing identity" to the Irish over the last few weeks that seems to have the Irish questioning themselves at times on the floor. Grant was the hero at the end of regulation by raining three-pointers in the waning seconds against Louisville, but he was hesitant with his missed shot at the end of regulation Wednesday against DePaul.
Grant is not alone though. The Irish have had unnerving long stretches without a field goal in recent weeks, and Brey says avoiding those extended dry spells begins with shooting the ball better.
"Part of that is being more willing to shoot it," Brey said. "I think we've turned down some shots. (For instance) that shot clock violation (Wednesday) night where both Jerian and Pat had shots. Especially our perimeter guys - when they have looks we need them to take them, because our percentages are pretty darn good. I don't think we aggressively take them as much."
Saturday's opponent, Providence (13-11, 5-7 Big East), is coming off a 76-66 win at South Florida Wednesday night. The Friars have won three straight games since a three-game losing streak to Pittsburgh, Marquette and Connecticut. They are 9-4 at home and according to realtimeRPI.com have a current RPI of 91 (Notre Dame's is No. 45).