Dec. 18, 2016
By John Heisler
Make no mistake, Mike Brey loves his 2016-17 University of Notre Dame men's basketball team.
And, really, what's not to like about an Irish team that opened the season with the most productive start (9-0) in Brey's 17 seasons in South Bend? About what mostly has been a consistently productive trio of veterans Steve Vasturia, V.J. Beachem and Bonzie Colson? About gritty point guard Matt Farrell who has been the catalyst for so much of the success? About post man Martinas Geben whose stats often belie his work (and worth) ethic?
Yet, with two weeks remaining until Atlantic Coast Conference play begins on New Year's Eve afternoon in Pittsburgh, there remains work to do.
Somewhere between two more non-league tilts and a batch of practices--maybe during the brief downtime the Irish have at Christmas--Brey will attempt to mix up a holiday concoction.
Maybe he'll throw in all the elements and the juice that enabled his team to come soaring off the launching pad on two successive Saturdays against top-rated Villanova and then 15th-ranked Purdue.
He'll figure out what allowed the free-flowing Irish offense to build such impressive early advantages against both the Wildcats and Boilermakers--with Notre Dame again Saturday roaring to a 17-point margin on the way to a 52-point half and 14-point lead at intermission.
Then Brey will attempt to bottle whatever that is, create a special elixir that the Irish can take with them when they play the Panthers--and then Louisville the following Wednesday and the rest of the ACC.
And Notre Dame's coach will see if he can use that special sauce mixed in with the Gatorade at halftime and when required during those second-half timeouts when times are tougher.
Because that's all that was missing at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Saturday in the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis where the Boilers somehow found their own brand of juice to erase that early Notre Dame advantage and prevail 86-81.
Brey knew his team needed to keep Purdue off the three-point line, corral 6-9 Caleb Swanigan inside and find a way to survive on the boards--none of which figured to be easy against a Boiler squad whose only losses are to Louisville and that same unbeaten Villanova unit.
And yet another sizzling first half began with a Swanigan foul less than a minute into the contest and a second on the Boilers' top scorer seven minutes in that sent him to the bench. With Dick Vitale's presence in the analyst's seat certifying this as must-see TV, the Irish went on a roll.
Notre Dame scored seven straight points over 1:06--with Purdue missing eight of nine shots--and Boiler coach Matt Painter had to call time at 10:06 with the Irish streaking at 21-13.
Then Brey's team knocked down four of five shots and forced another Boiler timeout at 4:46 with the Irish up by a dozen and Purdue missing 20 of its first 30 field-goal attempts.
Notre Dame connected on four in a row and Geben free throws at 1:45 made it 48-31. The Irish shot a white-hot 60.6 percent in the opening 20 minutes, making seven of their final eight.
The Irish sat pretty at the break (Farrell had seven assists by halftime and Notre Dame as a team had turned it over only three times)--but, of course, it had been that way a week ago, too, against Villanova.
"I know we've got 52 points on the board, but let's not let up," said Brey. "How many three-pointers do they have? One? We've got to really be good there. We've got to keep it to one and done and let's start the half rolling again. Twenty more now. We don't want them to feel good about themselves. We know who we are and we're not forcing anything on offense."
But Purdue managed to do exactly what the Irish did not want to see. The Boilers threw in a three in the first nine seconds--and three more long-distance bombs enabled Painter's squad to cut the margin to two points in the first 4:04 of the second half, including a 9-0 run.
A 6-0 responding Irish run built the Notre Dame advantage back to eight (65-57) until a three-pointer by Ryan Cline (his only basket of the afternoon) at 10:28 gave Purdue its first advantage at 67-65. The Irish never led again.
The Boilers went on a 10-0 run, the Irish missed five straight shots and Purdue connected on its 15 consecutive free throws before its first miss in the final five minutes. Painter's group never led by more than six, but the Irish simply could not make enough plays down the stretch.
Neither team scored for more than three minutes after Farrell's layup cut the Purdue advantage to 80-77 until the last of Colson's 23 points made it a one-point game.
But, with Vasturia and Beachem coming up scoreless after intermission, the Irish offense (.382 shooting after halftime) wasn't the same. Purdue downsized its defense (7-2 Isaac Haas didn't play in the second half) and hit five of 11 from the arc in the last 20 minutes.
"We've got two games and a bunch of practices and a lot of work to do," Brey told his team. "That's where we're at. We got work to do."
Painter knew he had to do some thing different in the second half.
"Every time we made a mistake (in the first half) they exposed us," he said. "Farrell (22 points, 10 assists, five rebounds) was tremendous in the first half--he kind of did whatever he wanted."
Ultimately, Purdue's solid second half won out over Notre Dame's outsized first-half play. Much like the Villanova game the previous weekend, the Irish simply couldn't make enough plays at either end of the floor after intermission to close the deal.
In reality, Brey knows there's not really any mystery antidote required here.
It's about getting defensive stops, it's about rebounding, its about toughness, it's about finding ways to remain in the offensive flow when the opposition dials up the defense.
How much the Irish can improve in those areas and more will have plenty to say about how Notre Dame shows in the conference warfare that begins December 31.
Senior associate athletics director John Heisler has been chronicling Irish athletic fortunes since 1978. Check back to UND.com for his weekly Sunday Brunch offerings.