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November 28, 2012

Irish ride ‘age before beauty'

The Notre Dame basketball team has a bunch of experienced, cohesive players. Kentucky has a bunch of young former high school All-Americans.

Experience versus youthful talent - age versus beauty, if you will - meet head-on Thursday night at Purcell Pavilion when the Irish (6-1) host the defending national champion Wildcats (4-1), who enter the game ranked No. 8.

John Calipari does start senior point guard Julius Mays (10 starts) and 6-foot-10 sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. But everyone’s talking about another crop of exciting freshmen -- shooting guard Archie Goodwin, power forward Alex Polythress, and centers Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. Among them, they have 30 collegiate starts, 24 of which have come this month. Mays is the only player in the rotation with a starting assignment prior to this season.

The 6-foot-4 Goodwin, the No. 5-rated shooting guard coming out of high school according to Rivals, is averaging 19.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists through five games. The 6-foot-7 Polythress, the No. 2-ranked power forward, is averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds. The 6-foot-10 Noel, the nation’s No. 1-rated center, is averaging 12.4 points and 8.6 rebounds. The 7-foot-0 Cauley-Stein, the No. 9-ranked center, is averaging 8.0 points and 4.4 rebounds.

How does Notre Dame stop all that? With experience, for one. Sixth-year senior Scott Martin, senior Jack Cooley, red-shirt senior Garrick Sherman, red-shirt junior Jerian Grant, junior Eric Atkins and sophomore Pat Connaughton - six of the seven players in Mike Brey’s rotation - have combined for 258 collegiate starts.

“I hope it comes into play,” said Brey when asked about the importance of Notre Dame’s veteran leadership. “That’s been a big thing that’s helped over the years. We’ve stayed old. We’ve not had to rely on playing a lot of young guys.

“If we’re going to be successful Thursday night, our experience and our poise are going to have to play out, and we’re going to have to be really good in that department for close to 40 minutes to beat the talent they put on the floor.”

Two years ago, the Irish put another veteran team on the Freedom Hall court in Louisville against the Wildcats. After playing to a 40-40 tie at halftime, Notre Dame couldn’t hold on against Kentucky, who was led by freshmen Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight. They combined for 47 points in a 72-58 victory over the Irish.

“Two years ago we had an all-senior team and they got the best of us,” said point guard Eric Atkins, a freshman at the time who played 31 minutes against the Wildcats. “We just have to out-play them. Every single guy has to out-play their guy because they’re a very good team. Their freshmen are really good.”

Martin, who enters Thursday night’s game with 80 career starts, knows that experience alone isn’t enough against the Wildcats.

“We just have to talk about what we have to do and keep going over it and re-emphasizing rebounding, which is going to be so key for us,” Martin said. “Just stick to our game plan and emphasize our game plan, and I think that will carry over into the game.

“But I don’t think you can lean too much on experience. It could help in certain situations, but in others, it doesn’t mean anything. Our togetherness is one thing and our familiarity with each other is one of the advantages that we have. We won’t break and turn on each other. We’ll stay tough.”

Notre Dame’s ability to play as a cohesive unit has carried the Irish to a 55-20 mark since the 2010-11 season, including a 105-7 record at Purcell Pavilion over the last 112 home games. Last season, the Irish hosted another athletically gifted team - No. 1-ranked Syracuse - and came away with a 67-58 victory.

“It’s more the chemistry with our team,” Grant said. “We have all the guys back from last year. The way we pass the ball and the way we like being out there with each other, we’ve been with each other for three or four years now.”

“I think it should help us a lot,” said Connaughton of Notre Dame’s veteran nature. “I also don’t think we can rely strictly on that. If you think, ‘We have the continuity, we should be fine,’ then the gears shift and it’s not an advantage for us. We just have to play our game and play all 40 minutes as hard as we possibly can.”

Sherman, the newcomer, is as curious as anyone to see how age/chemistry versus youth/size-athleticism plays out Thursday night.

“I guess we’ll see,” said Sherman, who started 29 games in two seasons at Michigan State. “We have a lot of experience, and that will help us out. But they have a lot of talent, too. So we have to be ready to play.

“It all depends. Everything is a variable right now. I can’t say if we have a distinct advantage or they do. We’ll see how it goes. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”

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