RU?prepares for surging Fighting Irish
The No. 23 Notre Dame team Mike Rice sees rarely makes mistakes, values possessions and plays with discipline. So it is only fitting the Rutgers head men’s basketball coach — in this season of Big East parity — was the last to beat it.
The date was Jan. 16. The Fighting Irish never looked back, ripping off six wins in a row.
“On every possession of the basketball, you have to be more disciplined than the most disciplined team in the Big East,” Rice said of facing Notre Dame. “It’s difficult for some.”
The Scarlet Knights were at ease, translating an 8-point halftime lead into a 7-point victory. They lost five of six games since and now face a three-game stretch against the conference’s elite.
The Knights’ win against the Irish looks better with each passing day, as head coach Mike Brey’s team inches closer to at least a likely NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
It does so without senior forward Tim Abromaitis, a preseason first team all-league player who suffered a season-ending injury.
“No slight on Notre Dame, but, man, they’re on a roll,” Rice said. “They’re doing things I don’t think anyone thought they’d do. I didn’t think they’d be on this good of a roll. But it just goes to show you when you don’t beat yourself … you can do anything.”
The Knights could use the cue.
They hoisted up 23 3-point attempts Feb. 8 in a loss to in-state rival Seton Hall, making only six. They shot 31.5 percent from the field. And they committed 16 turnovers. Their 14.9 giveaways per game rank tied for 257th in the nation.
But Rutgers (12-13, 4-8) at least has athleticism and pace on its side.
“They’re all creatures of habit, so we have to take them out of what they want to do,” said junior forward Austin Johnson. “They’re comfortable with running their offense at their own pace, so if we can speed them up, that’s to our advantage.”
The Knights did so in the first contest, so much that Irish head coach Mike Brey called it a “bad matchup” Monday for Notre Dame (17-8, 9-3). But for once, he has the athletes of his own.
“It’s the Big East. Every team is capable of doing anything,” said sophomore guard Mike Poole. “You see Pitt started off 0-7 and they picked it up. Every team is capable of running the table.”
Sophomore point guard Eric Atkins and redshirt freshman guard Jerian Grant make up arguably the Big East’s most dynamic backcourt. They held their own at the Louis Brown Athletic Center, and they likely will in South Bend, Ind., where the Irish seldom lose.
The Irish toppled then-No. 1 Syracuse there Jan. 20, along with Marquette, a top-25 team, since their loss to Rutgers. They lost only once at the Joyce Center in the last two seasons.
Rice offered his own explanation for their success.
“Notre Dame plays there,” he said.
But Jack Cooley, the Irish’s catalyst, makes his home in its paint. The junior center ranks second in the Big East with 3.8 offensive rebounds per contest.
“Some of the best athletes in the world,” Rice said, “aren’t doing what he does.”
Brey recruited Cooley, a three-star commit according to Rivals.com, while only two other schools from power conferences looked at him. He played sparingly as a freshman during standout Luke Harangody’s final season.
He is now part of Brey’s patchwork unit that continues to defy mounting odds.
“They always seem to pull something out like this with regard to who they have,” Johnson said. “Brey does a great job with what he has, and they stick to his blueprint and never get away from it. That’s what helps them.”
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