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January 22, 2013

Tim Prister's Full Court Press

Irish Illustrated Editors Column

The message has changed dramatically in two weeks.

Since the night of the football team’s national championship tilt with Alabama, Mike Brey’s basketball squad has played like, well, like the football team did against the Crimson Tide on Jan. 7.

After defeating Cincinnati on the road to raise their record to 2-0 in conference play, the Irish have lost two of three games at home as well as what has become an annual disappointment in Madison Square Garden against St. John’s.

Monday night at Purcell Pavilion, where the Irish have dominated in recent years, Georgetown put a whooping on them, 63-47. It was the second worst Brey-coached loss at home in his 13-year tenure at Notre Dame.

“That was a thorough beating,” Brey said. “It was an eerie feeling to be out of it the last 10 minutes of the game. It was creepy, it was eerie, it wasn’t pleasant. It was very foreign territory. But unless we get our gears going, it could happen again.”

Say what you will about Brey – and there is much being said these days after the return of every significant player from 2011-12 except Alex Dragicevich – but he is a realist. His pre-season message focused on his team winning the Big East regular-season title. That’s not his message anymore.

It’s time to think in snapshots. The big picture is much too large to comprehend.

“I threw that out there and put that on us and was very public about it,” said Brey of his pre-season intention of making a run at the Big East title. “When you’re looking at 3-3 and the way we’re playing, we’re a long way from that.

“I wonder if we need to start thinking about, ‘That may not be realistic, fellas. We may not be able to get that.’ I don’t want to say that now because mathematically there are still a lot of games left. But from my frame of mind, we’ve got to get back to simple stuff, what we’re going to do here, and can we scratch out getting a bid…We’re (still) in a position to get a bid (by) doing solid work down the stretch.”

Indeed, there is plenty of time against a relatively watered down Big East. But the Irish have issues, big issues, which need to be addressed.

Scott Martin is playing on a bum knee. He’s scored a grand total of seven points in the last four games after averaging nearly 10 through the first 15 games. After shooting better than 50 percent from three-point range, he now has missed all six of his attempts since the Cincinnati game. He can’t jump, which limits how much he can help Jack Cooley on the backboards. He can’t run that well either.

“The knee is bothering him,” Brey said. “I feel for him. He’s trying to give us stuff, but the knee has been an issue and it’s affecting all his phases.

“We’re in a weird situation with him because I don’t know how much he’s going to be able to practice the rest of the year. It’s nothing major. It’s just a lot of wear and tear on a knee that has had two surgeries.”

Martin is not flashy and he doesn’t post huge numbers. But he had converted 10-of-14 three-pointers right before the knee started acting up. When he’s healthy, he is the glue of this basketball team. He understands team defense. He understands his role. He ties the Irish together on the defensive end of the court. It was his charge taken against Rutgers that preserved the victory.

When he’s not healthy, the Irish have a huge void in terms of productivity and leadership.

The Irish simply are not scoring the basketball. They’ve been held to less than 70 points five straight games, including 47 points Monday night against a Georgetown team that held them to 41 points in Washington D.C., last season.

Notre Dame came into the Georgetown game shooting better than 40 percent as a team from three-point range. But they were just 2-of-16 against the Hoyas, and for a team with such good three-point numbers, they don’t have a really consistent threat from beyond the arc. Martin just started making threes consistently this year.

Eric Atkins is converting 43.3 percent of his three-point attempts. But he’s made just 23 in 19 games. Pat Connaughton has picked up the pace recently, rising above 40 percent Monday night with his two treys. But the rest of the team combined for 0-of-13 from three-point range. Jerian Grant has fallen to 31.6 percent.

The Irish simply lack a consistent sharpshooter from the outside like a Ben Hansbrough or Kyle McAlarney.

How badly do the Irish need shooters? Brey wanted freshman Cameron Biedscheid to keep shooting Monday night despite the fact that he missed all eight of his shots, including five from three-point range.

“Keep shooting,” said Brey of his message to Biedscheid. “We need him to make shots because we haven’t gotten that consistently from anybody else, and I think he’s our best pure shooter.

“I don’t want him looking over his shoulder. He needs to keep taking shots. For us to get where we want to get and get a bid, he has to keep shooting for us.”

Again, statistically, Notre Dame isn’t that bad from the free-throw line at 119th nationally and above 70 percent. But when the Irish need to bang down some free throws, they can’t seem to do it. They were just 11-of-18 Monday night against the Hoyas with numerous opportunities to stem the tide.

As the Hoyas went on an 11-0 first-half run, Grant and Tom Knight each missed two free throws. Cooley and Grant both missed the front end of one-and-ones midway through the second half when the game was still in the balance.

In the home loss to Connecticut, Notre Dame made just 4-of-7. They shot it well against St. John’s (14-of-17) and Rutgers (15-of-17). But they’ve shot under their season average in 11 out of 19 games.

If Cooley doesn’t rebound on the offensive end for the Irish, nobody does. Cooley has 86 of Notre Dame’s 189 offensive rebounds (45.5 percent). Garrick Sherman, who played so poorly as league play opened that he’s now on the bench, is second with 21 offensive rebounds. No one else on the team has more than 13 (Connaughton).

Grant, a great athlete with leaping ability, has exactly four offensive rebounds in 19 games. Four. He doesn’t try to help out on the offensive boards. Against teams that will rebound it and run, that’s understandable. Against a plodding team like Georgetown, there was no reason for Grant not to help out on the offensive glass. Yet once again, it was Cooley or nothing.

At 6-foot-2 – and that’s a stretch – Atkins has more than twice as many offensive rebounds as the 6-foot-5 Grant.

The bench scoring has dried up, which is part of the reason Brey suggested after Monday night’s loss that he’ll consider juggling the lineup before Saturday’s game at South Florida. Biedscheid has 14 points in the last five conference games and has made just 3-of-23 shots, including 1-of-12 from three-point range.

With Sherman benched, Knight came in and sparked the Irish against St. John’s and Rutgers. But Knight isn’t going to play more than 10-to-15 minutes a game and contribute more than a handful of points. At 6-foot-10, 258 pounds, he’s not a good rebounder. He had zero rebounds in 22 minutes against Rutgers and Georgetown.

Brey could turn to 6-foot-10, 230-pound Zach Auguste for a spark. But Brey played Auguste so sparingly during the non-conference portion of the season – 59 minutes – that he hasn’t had the confidence to give him any playing time in the last five Big East games. He’ll likely hurt the Irish with inconsistent play as much as he’ll help them, but Brey may not have much choice but to throw him in there and see if he can light a fire. At least he gives the Irish much-needed athleticism if not bulk.

Brey might also want to give Sherman another shot since he does possess offensive skills around the basket and provides some of the defensive knowledge that Martin has. He also is a turnover waiting to happen.

“It has to be a little bit of ‘we’ve got nothing to lose’ with this team now,” Brey said.

Notre Dame’s defensive pressure against a poor offensive team like Georgetown was non-existent. The Hoyas had games of 37 points (a win over Tennessee), 46 (a win over Towson), and 48 (losses to Marquette and Pittsburgh). Yet Georgetown shot 53.3 percent against the Irish, including 7-of-15 from three-point range.

Just as telling were the number of loose balls that ended up in the hands of the Hoyas.

“We really need to turn up our defensive intensity,” Atkins said. “They bullied us. They did whatever they wanted, and if we’re going to play like that, we’re going to come in last in the league. We need to get tougher defensively.”

This is where Martin’s injury particularly hurts the Irish.

To hear Atkins tell it, the Irish lost the eye of the tiger after knocking off the Bearcats in Cincinnati to move to 2-0 in conference play.

“What really changed, if anything, is we all got a little cocky after starting off in the Big East 2-0,” Atkins said. “I think we all need to come back to earth and say to ourselves that we’re not that good right now.”

Said Cooley: “That might have had a part in the UConn game, but we woke up after that. I don’t know really what it’s been lately that’s been rocking us like this. The coaches are great. They’ll figure this out. But we’ve got to come together as a team and work out these problems in practice.”

Brey is right when he talks about the reserved personality of his basketball team. There is not one player on the Irish squad who would qualify as fiery, certainly nothing close to a Ben Hansbrough from two seasons ago who would lambaste the team when it let down.

“We’re kind of a quiet team,” Brey said. “We don’t talk, we don’t communicate a whole lot. We could use a little more juice, a little more communication.”

The closest thing the Irish have to a boisterous personality is Cooley, and he’s just now learning the leadership role. Besides, he has enough on his hands up front when it’s Cooley-against-the-world on the backboards. Biedscheid could be that one day, but he’s a cold-shooting freshman who is getting caught up in the transition to Big East play.

Martin is the leader of the team and is the most vocal. But now that he’s struggling physically, his voice isn’t resonating like it would if he could make a significant physical contribution. Atkins has become a leader, but he leads more through his sound play than his words.

Particularly disappointing during this skid is the fact that the Irish have lost to teams younger and much less experienced. Georgetown doesn’t have a single senior on the roster with three sophomores and two juniors in the starting lineup. St. John’s is even younger, and Connecticut is a team in transition.

Asked why it was the Hoyas who looked like the men and the Irish who played like boys, Brey didn’t have an answer.

“I don’t know. That’s a good question. I don’t know,” Brey said. “I’m disappointed in that. That’s something we’re going to have to address the next couple of days. I don’t really have the answer to that…It’s a hard league. We’re fortunate (the Georgetown loss) only counted as one loss the way that thing went.”

The Big East is not the powerhouse that it’s been in recent years. Syracuse and Louisville probably are in a class of their own. But Marquette lost a ton of talent. Pittsburgh is still transitioning back to where it was a couple of years ago. Georgetown, Connecticut and Villanova are rebuilding. Rutgers and St. John’s have improved, but are still mid-level programs in the Big East. Providence, Seton Hall, South Florida, DePaul? Those should all be wins for a veteran team like Notre Dame.

There’s plenty of time and opportunities for the Irish to get back in the running for an NCAA bid. But right now, the only thing that matters is coming up with a game plan to defeat South Florida, which will play a deliberate game much the same way Georgetown did.

“I thought we played tight and we played with the weight of the world,” said Brey Monday night. “Sometimes we (play tight at home) because we’ve been so good and have been expected to win all the time.

“We need to be really loose with nothing to lose in Tampa. We’re going to be off the radar now. Let’s see if we can just kind of go for it with no pressure.

“I’m glad we’re 3-3 (in the Big East),” added Brey, emphasizing the 3-3 part. “We better just take 3-3 right now and try and figure out how to get a fourth league win.”

The way things are going, nothing will come easily for the Irish.

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