When Notre Dame took the floor last Tuesday against Virginia, the Irish were 6-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and ranked 14th in the country.
Things have certainly changed in a hurry.
“We are getting smacked hard right now, but we’re getting smacked hard together,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said.
Monday night’s 84-74 loss to No. 21 Duke is the latest in a string of losses for No. 20 Notre Dame. Brey’s squad has now lost three straight and four-of-five since beginning ACC play 5-0.
Notre Dame is now 1-5 against Top 25 teams, the lone victory coming at home against Louisville.
Things don’t get easier now — a road game at No. 12 North Carolina awaits Brey and the Irish on Saturday.
“We just realize we have a lot of work to do,” junior forward Bonzie Colson said. “It’s the best league in the country and the great thing about it is you get to play again and you get to learn and grow. That’s what we have to do.”
Notre Dame has now lost back-to-back home games, a valuable commodity in the country’s best conference.
“For us, this is league play,” Brey said after the loss. “Now we’ve got to bounce back at Carolina, right? That’s how you’ve got to get going in this league? I’m thrilled we have six league wins right now, I’ll take that right now. The punches of league play are going to come, and we’re getting them right now. Hopefully we can be resilient enough to bounce back.”
Brey said he’s confident in his leadership core of Colson, senior guard Steve Vasturia and senior wing V.J. Beachem to pull the Irish out of their recent funk.
In his 17 seasons as Notre Dame’s coach, Brey could predict the Irish coming back to the pack after the program’s best start during his tenure. Winning five straight to begin ACC play and reaching six wins by the half-way point of league play has given Notre Dame some room for error.
“You’re maybe never going to win five in a row again, so you coach accordingly and you adjust how you handle your guys,” Brey said. “Not that you’re lowering the bar, but you’ve got to get them realistic too about coming back and not getting in panic mode.”
That’s life in the ACC.
“We still think we’re fine,” Beachem said. “This is going to be a test of how together we are, our leadership. At the same time we’re playing in the ACC, so bumps in the road are going to happen like this and it’s all about how we respond to it.”
New Starting Lineup?
Notre Dame’s lackluster first-half offense — 25 points and 26.9-percent shooting — has Brey thinking about using a new starting lineup next time the Irish take the floor.
Brey did not guarantee a new-look starting five for Saturday’s game at North Carolina (6 p.m., ESPN), but the possibility seems likely.
“That’s something we really have to look at, because we’re going to have to score some points to beat some people in this league,” Brey said.
Brey said the coaching staff will explore starting either freshman guard T.J. Gibbs or sophomore guard Rex Pflueger against the Tar Heels. Junior forward Martinas Geben — who played just seven minutes against Duke — has started every game this season, but with limited effectiveness.
Pflueger started the second half against Duke and finished with seven points and two assists in 20 minutes. Gibbs had 12 points in 19 minutes.
The smaller lineup, which shifts Colson to the 5, could jump-start a slumping offense. Notre Dame scored 49 points and shot 56.7 percent in the second half against the Blue Devils on Monday.
“There’s something about starting off with some buckets going in, even if the other team’s matching you,” Brey said. “There’s something about starting off scoring, you come to the media timeout and you’ve got 10 or 12, and maybe it’s 10-10, but you’re kind of throwing a little bit. We have to really think about that.”
Brey also said freshman forward John Mooney, who has played in just nine games this season, could also see an expanded role moving forward.
“I didn’t get to him today, but I do want to try and get to him a little bit more, because he’s a bigger guy that can also space the floor because he’s a stretch four,” Brey said of the 6-foot-9 Mooney. “He’s a guy that we’ll look at and we did (Sunday). We need to look at him more.”
Vasturia Struggles Again
For the second straight game, Notre Dame’s second-leading scorer this season failed to do much offensively.
Vasturia had just seven points on 1-of-9 shooting against Duke. This past Saturday at Georgia Tech, he had just five points on 1-of-7 shooting.
“No matter how Steve is shooting the ball or anything like that, he’s still going to bring his energy defensively, his toughness,” Beachem said. “Regardless of how he’s shooting the ball, we need him out there, we need him taking those shots and being aggressive. Nobody is worried about it at all.”
Brey said Vasturia’s lack of offense against Duke was a result of a tough defensive assignment. Vasturia guarded Duke star sophomore guard Luke Kennard for much of Monday’s game, holding Kennard to 16 points, under his season average of 20.4.
“Steve tonight did an unbelievable job on Kennard,” Brey said. “His legs on the offensive end showed it. He needs some rest for two days and we’ll get him back to practice. Steve’s a guy who bounces back, but tonight the offensive production was down because of how he guarded Kennard. We just didn’t want Kennard to get 30.”