INDIANAPOLIS – As No. 1-ranked Indiana and its fans exited Bankers Life Fieldhouse Saturday afternoon – slowly trickling out as the pace and style of the second game paled in comparison to the Hoosiers’ frenetic clash with Butler – so too did the energy in the building.
Irish head coach Mike Brey would talk about how great it was that Notre Dame sold its 4,000-ticket allotment. But between the way the Irish followers were spread out all over the arena, and a fan base that has no clear concept of how to cheer for this basketball team, the 19,000-seat facility sounded more like a high school gymnasium than a professional complex during Notre Dame’s 81-68 victory over Purdue.
That’s because the Notre Dame men’s basketball fans are not in sync with the Irish squad. At Purcell Pavilion, it takes the defending champion Kentucky Wildcats to come to town to draw a notable crowd and to whip the student body into a frenzy. Once Big East play begins the first week of January, the pace will pick up again. But the students won’t be back from Christmas break, and everyone’s attention will be on a little game of pigskin being played down in Miami on Jan. 7.
It probably won’t be until the Irish host Georgetown on Monday, Jan. 21, or Louisville on Feb. 9, before Notre Dame gets to play before a home crowd commensurate to the record and the ranking they’ll likely have. The students will just be trickling back into town the weekend of the Connecticut game on Jan. 12.
It will be at least another month before Notre Dame men’s basketball matters, and even then – particularly if the football team claims a national title – emotions will be diverted.
Why such apathy? That’s just the way the Notre Dame men’s basketball program is received. A lack of post-season success has many constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and placing less and less emphasis on regular-season accomplishments. And while this current basketball squad is veteran with a great knowledge of how to play the game and a chemistry that is unmatched by most, it’s still a work in progress that doesn’t seem to flow nearly as well as the head coach described following Saturday’s victory.
“That was really business-like by us today,” said Brey after Notre Dame allowed a 23-point lead dwindle to nine. “We’re an older team and I thought it was men kind of playing like men. I’m thrilled with our defense, especially the second half, to hold them scoreless for a while. I thought our offensive efficiency was excellent again.
“These guys love playing together. (Pat) Connaughton was fabulous guarding (D.J.) Byrd, and also gave us some scoring. I thought out big guys – (Jack) Cooley, (Scott) Martin and (Garrick) Sherman – all really helped on ball screens. All three of those guys were really there with their bodies to clog that up for the most part.”
Notre Dame took a bad Purdue team and made it look bad until freshman Rapheal Davis – with a grand total of 29 points in nine games – scored 21 points in the final 10 ½ minutes to help reduce a 23-point deficit to nine before the Irish pulled away again.
But as much as most of Brey’s comments are true, this does not have the feel of the chemistry-laced squad of two years ago that finished 27-7 and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Led by Ben Hansbrough and Tim Abromaitis – both lethal shooters from three-point range – the Irish were a well-oiled machine.
Many thought the 2012-13 version of the Irish would approach that same lethal level, and with the Big East season still ahead, there’s more than enough time to achieve similarly. The team defense is better than perhaps it’s been at any point during the 13-year Brey era.
In Cooley, the Irish have a double-double machine and a tenacious offensive rebounder. In Martin, the Irish have an intelligent, do-a-little-bit-of-everything kind of leader. In Eric Atkins, you have a true leader of the offense with an off-the-chart assist-to-turnover ratio and an increased desire to score the basketball. In Jerian Grant, you have perhaps the best athlete on the team who can shoot threes, distribute the basketball, and present match-up problems for some teams.
In Connaughton, the Irish have a much-improved defender and an occasional three-point hot hand who has learned how to penetrate a bit more. In Sherman and Cameron Biedscheid off the bench, you have a scoring threat every bit as effective underneath as Cooley and a talented, long, sharp-shooting freshman who will impact a lot of games before his days at Notre Dame are over.
“We’ve got a great frame of mind,” Brey said. “They love playing together, and they do play beautifully together. How they move the ball and cut and share it…I love that we’ve had a defensive identity since the beginning of the season. Our offensive identity has just kicked in.”
But after 10 games, mostly against beatable opponents, including three more next week (IPFW, Kennesaw State and Niagara), the Irish will enter Big East play on Jan. 5 against Seton Hall, and we still won’t quite have a grip on what they have.
Notre Dame hit 16-of-18 free throws down the stretch against Purdue, but that came after missing seven of the first 15. For the season, the Irish rank 292nd nationally (out of 345 teams) in free-throw percentage at .632, despite the fact seven of Notre Dame’s first 10 games have been at home in Purcell Pavilion.
Even when the Irish are at elite level, as they were two seasons ago, they’re not the kind of team that’s going to take the basketball away from the opponent. Notre Dame ranks 265th nationally in steals, tied with 4-6 Purdue.
While the Irish are vastly improved from three-point range over last season, they’re not in the league with the team two seasons ago when Hansbrough and Abromaitis both easily shot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. Notre Dame’s .382 shooting percentage during non-conference play should take a fairly significant hit when Big East play begins. They simply don’t have a three-point shooter of the caliber of Hansbrough/Abromaitis.
“We can still get better,” Brey said. “Unlike our team two years ago with all those seniors and Hansbrough, we were kind of a finished product on the third day of practice, but it was a heckuva finished product. We got a two seed.”
They rebound well (37th in rebounding margin), they defend well and their unselfish play – accentuated by its No. 3-rated assist-to-turnover margin – are huge factors in their success.
But as of yet, this doesn’t have the feel of a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 team. That’s mainly due to Brey’s poor track record with just one Sweet 16 appearance in the previous 12 seasons. The Irish certainly have chemistry – with more in the reserve tank, to be sure – but they’re going to have to create some magic during the Big East season to approach the 2010-11 team, which couldn’t get past Florida State in the second game of the tournament in Chicago.
Something is missing. Perhaps with a veteran group like this, all the Irish need is some more meaningful basketball games. With as many games as guys like Cooley, Martin and Atkins have under their belts, and with Grant and Connaughton having gone through the long grind before, perhaps this team simply hasn’t flipped the switch yet.
“This group can still get better,” Brey said. “Sherman is still getting comfortable. Biedscheid is still getting comfortable. So that’s what I want us to really concentrate on here because we’ve got six more days and three more games before we take a Christmas break.”
After that, it’s a two-week layoff before the start of Big East play. Maybe that will be enough to trip Notre Dame’s wire. Maybe that will be enough to get Irish fans to come through the turnstiles and make some noise.
Until then, the picture of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team is a little fuzzy. There may be a lid on this team’s growth potential. The work in progress is coming together at a measured pace. The Big East season and the challenges that come with it can’t come soon enough.