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January 31, 2013

Let the reinventing commence

When it comes to ad-libbing in the midst of the conference season, Mike Brey is pretty adept.

He should be. He’s had plenty of practice.

He did it at the end of the 2009-10 season when Luke Harangody went down with a knee injury, and the “burn offense” torched Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Connecticut and Marquette in consecutive games to land an unlikely NCAA tournament bid.

He did it last season when sharpshooter Tim Abromaitis went down with a season-ending knee injury before the conference season even started.

Now, with glue guy Scott Martin out indefinitely with a knee injury, Brey has put together a big lineup featuring Jack Cooley and Tom Knight together, and the results have been back-to-back victories over South Florida and red-hot Villanova.

Notre Dame’s 65-60 victory over Villanova Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion puts the Irish in a tie for fourth with a trip to Big East bottom-feeder DePaul this weekend. A victory would give the Irish a 6-3 mark at the halfway point of the conference schedule.

“I love us big,” said Brey Wednesday night after this squad knocked off the Wildcats, who were coming off back-to-back victories over No. 5 Louisville and No. 3 Syracuse. “They’re going to press us, but we’ve got to play big. We’re playing two big guys, and those two big guys have to screen and pound away and get on the boards.”

Brey had little choice but to use his bulk with Martin out and Villanova’s big, powerful, deep front line. The results - mixed in with 9-of-14 shooting from three-point range by Cam Biedscheid and Jerian Grant - pushed the Irish to two games over .500 in the conference for the first time since the opening week of Big East play.

“We’re more physical,” Brey said. “We fouled. We knocked guys down. I don’t care. We’ve got enough guys. You foul out? I don’t care. We’ve got enough guys to throw in there. The physicality we play with on offense and defense is really helping us, and when you have two guys in there all the time, it helps your physicality.

“If we make a mistake and it’s something attacking and playing really hard, we’ll live with it. I’m proud of our group because as we’ve reinvented here a little bit more physically and bigger, and we’ve really embraced it.”

The physicality the Irish showed against Villanova seemed to make Jerian Grant more aggressive. He followed up a four-turnover first half with a turnover-free, seven-assist second half to give him half of Notre Dame’s 20 assists against the Wildcats. Grant slashed to the basket and repeatedly found Biedscheid spotted up outside the arc.

Knight has been a Godsend in Martin’s absence. He scored 17 points and grabbed seven rebounds in the victory over the Bulls, and added another 10 points, four rebounds and two blocked shots against the Wildcats.

Knight, a left-handed jump-shooter, has proven time and again on the practice floor that he has 18-foot range, and now he’s showing it in games. He chipped in with six points against St. John’s and Rutgers, and has now averaged 13.5 points in his two starts. He has 10 blocked shots in 149 minutes of action, which ties him for second despite ranking eighth on the team in playing time.

“Jack (Cooley) has a sidekick now, pounding away,” Brey said. “Jack has another guy going to the boards with him. It makes the rest of our team physical.

“The one thing Tom Knight gives you is he can step out a little bit. So they can’t really play completely off him. He helps our spacing because he steps out and he makes a 15-, 18-footer. We want him shooting mid-range stuff if they’re good shots. Having another shot-maker at the end of the clock really helps.”

It now appears as if Brey finally can turn the page on 6-foot-10, 246-pound Garrick Sherman - at least for now - and look to the present and future with 6-foot-10 freshman Zach Auguste.

Auguste wandered around for a while when he first entered the lineup with 5:50 left in the first half. But he got into the flow in the second half when Sherman struggled and Knight got into some foul trouble. His catch of a length-of-the-court baseball pass from Grant, and then his fortitude around the bucket less than a minute later against Villanova’s length gave the Irish a six-point cushion on both occasions.

“I love the energy Zach gave us off the bench,” said Brey of Auguste. “He’s caught up and understands our stuff. He flies around. He fouls. I love it. He’s expendable. He can knock the crap out of people. He’s running all over the place. He’s physical. We had another energy guy.”

When the Irish had Kyle McAlarney or Ben Hansbrough or Abromaitis, they had a go-to three-point shooter. Notre Dame hasn’t had that the last two seasons. Statistically, they’ve shot it well this year (.398 on 366 attempts). But it’s usually a game-to-game hot hand, and it’s not always easy to press the button at the right time.

Biedscheid entered Wednesday’s game having missed 13 of his previous 15 three-point attempts. He was a combined 4-of-17 from beyond the arc in Big East play. He found the range against Villanova, converting 4-of-5 in the second half and 5-of-7 for the game.

“He apologized to me after the Georgetown game saying, ‘Coach, I’ve got to make those for us,’” said Brey of Biedscheid’s 0-of-5 three-point shooting against the Hoyas. “In our program, guys that can shoot it, I don’t want them sheepish about it. I just told him, ‘Just keep taking them if they’re good shots.’

“Cam should be able to do that more often than not for us. He is such a gamer. He just loves to play ball. It was almost like, ‘I’m not going to let you down. I’ll be back.’ This was coming.”

More than his inconsistent shooting, Biedscheid’s main deficiency has been on the defensive end. Not so against Villanova.

“At times this year, we were like, ‘Can we play him? Do we have a match-up? Where do we hide him?’ We didn’t have to hide him (against Villanova), and that’s something I want to reinforce with him. He wasn’t a liability on the defensive end.”

Of course, when a team reinvents the wheel, opposing teams adjust. Smaller, faster, more athletic teams will try to take advantage of Notre Dame’s ball-handling deficiencies with multiple big men on the floor. The next time, it might be Pat Connaughton coming through after a 0-of-5 shooting performance against Villanova.

The Irish continue to close poorly, although Cooley’s two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining iced the game Wednesday night. Prior to that, however, Eric Atkins and Grant missed the front end of one-and-ones, and Atkins dribbled the ball off his foot with 21.9 seconds remaining and the Irish leading by three.

Notre Dame closed poorly in back-to-back losses to Connecticut and St. John’s, and the engines never fired down the stretch against Georgetown. Go back to the middle of November when the Irish collapsed in overtime against St. Joseph’s after building an eight-point lead with four minutes remaining.

The fact the Irish have a voice of reason at point guard during good times and bad - despite his struggles against Villanova - will help as they move forward.

“I don’t think we solved anything,” said Atkins, who was 2-of-7 from the field, including 0-of-3 from three-point range. “This is another really good Big East win. We’re still working things out and just trying to get better.”

Atkins’ cautious approach is important as the Irish head into the second half of Big East play. Six of their remaining 10 games are against teams with a combined 33-14 conference mark. Six of the remaining 10 games are on the road.

But when Brey has to reinvent the wheel - which he’s done frequently in recent years - things have worked out well.

“As we’re reinventing here, we’re finding some new stuff,” Brey said. “It’s fun watching a new vibe that we have. I’ve talked about how sometimes your rotation can get stale. I think it’s fair to say we were a little stale with our rotation.

“But those guys give us life and juice. It has energized the guys who are playing heavy minutes. Our mental toughness was as good as our physical toughness.”

Spin the wheel often enough and what looks like another invention is just the normal turn of another injury-impacted basketball season for the Fighting Irish. Once again, they’ve found a way to stay alive.

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