Nov. 30, 2016
By John Heisler
Granted, it’s still November.
But take a look at the Division I men’s basketball standings this morning-and one of the teams with the best record in all of college hoops is Notre Dame.
Mike Brey’s team is joined by an impressive crew also at 7-0-fellow Atlantic Coast Conference entrant North Carolina, plus Butler, Creighton, Villanova and Xavier from the Big East, UCLA from the Pac-12 and Kentucky from the Southeastern Conference.
Yes, that’s the same Notre Dame team that played in the NCAA Elite Eight the last two years (the only program in the nation to do so).
Yes, that’s the same unselfish Irish team that came into action last night leading the nation in fewest turnovers per game and assist-to-turnover ratio.
Yes, that’s the same Notre Dame team that now boasts four straight wins over Big Ten opponents-after defeating Michigan and Wisconsin on its way to that Elite Eight status in the 2016 NCAA Championship, Northwestern last week to win the Legends Classic in Brooklyn and Iowa last night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Irish have now won three straight in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge after a first-year loss at Iowa. And Notre Dame, generally best known for its free-wheeling offense and three-point shooting, did it on defense Tuesday night at Purcell Pavilion.
With Steve Vasturia and Rex Pflueger (and a few of their friends) doing much of the defensive dirty work against Hawkeye standout Peter Jok with his gaudy 25.3-point scoring average, the Irish combined to limit Jok to horrendous four-of-20 field-goal shooting (including two of 11 from three-point land). They blocked his shots (the Irish ended with six blocks overall), they altered others and they seldom gave him a free look. And that had plenty to do with Notre Dame’s 92-78 victory.
Irish coach Mike Brey loved that attention to defensive detail:
“Field-goal percentage defense: 38 percent,” Brey told his squad after it was over. “To guard a great offensive group like that and hold them to 38 percent is really good. We started out the second half guarding and kept them to one and done.”
Maybe it’s no accident that on the white board in the Irish locker room, the nightly defensive keys are listed above their offensive counterparts. Tuesday night the defensive versions included sprinting back in transition, team awareness of Jok and one and done.
“And can we rebound tonight like we did against Colorado?” Brey asked his players before tip-off. “We’ve got to be able to do it.”
All that fell nicely into place early as Notre Dame, for the most part, harassed the Hawkeyes when Fran McCaffery’s squad tried to run its half-court sets.
With the Irish players in their green uniforms-and with the Notre Dame students and many other fans sporting the green-Iowa got nothing out of its first five possessions (one of those a fast-break lay-up attempt by Jok that Matt Farrell blocked). The home team built early rebounding leads of 14-5 and 17-9.
A 7-0 Irish run pushed the Notre Dame advantage to 34-21, including a technical foul against McCaffery and three free throws by Ryan after he was fouled behind the arc.
Then, somehow, a 41-26 lead at the 3:23 mark, largest of the half for Notre Dame, vanished into thin air as Iowa scored 13 straight points to end the half. Half the Iowa buckets had come from three-point range, and the Irish already had 11 turnovers at the break (the visitors had five).
“We’re going to have to work on the defensive end,” Brey said to his squad. “I don’t care how your offense is going. If you can’t guard, I can’t play you in the second half.”
Bonzie Colson, on his way to a monster 24-point, 17-rebound performance, started the second half off right with a bucket and pair of free throws.
But, even with 6-9 freshman Tyler Cook sidelined by injury, the Hawkeyes hung tough-thanks mostly to first-time starter freshman guard Jordan Bohannon, who hit seven of 15 attempts from deep (he finished with 23 points) and freshman forward Cordell Pemsl, who hit all but one of his nine field-goal tries.
Five minutes into the second half Iowa still led (52-50 after a Pemsl basket), but the Irish responded with a 10-0 run (a three by Farrell and five points by Vasturia who finished with 22) while the visitors went scoreless for more than three minutes.
Beachem hit threes at 9:46 and again at 7:58 to make it 70-60 for the Irish. Notre Dame iced it with eight straight free throws in the final 2:50, leading by as many as 17 at 85-68 with 2:19 remaining.
Said Brey to his team after the game, “Great job in the second half. I love how we started the half. We got great shots and we executed. We got to the bonus quick and used that as a great weapon. Way to take care of business for us and for our league-we want to win this challenge for the ACC.”
The Irish who came in rated fourth nationally in free-throw percentage at .826, did even better than that Tuesday night at 30 of 33 for .909 (including 12 in a row to end the game). They won the battle on the boards by 13.
Notre Dame Sunday plays host to North Carolina A&T with a chance to match the best start to a season in the Brey years (8-0 in 2010-11).
Top 20 opponents Villanova and Purdue lie ahead-not to mention an IPFW team that already owns a victory over Indiana-but, for now, Brey likes what he has seen.
It’s only November, but . . .
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been chronicling the Notre Dame sports scene since 1978.