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Irish 3-Point Play

It’s not over the top to think the Notre Dame men’s basketball team is another loss away from being in full crisis mode. After jumping out to a 2-0 record in Big East Conference play, the soon-to-drop 20th-ranked Fighting Irish are coming off back-to-back losses to Connecticut and St. John’s.

Jack Cooley was benched for the final 11 minutes Tuesday in a loss at St. John's

Instead of banking two more victories, keeping pace with league leaders Louisville (4-0), Syracuse (4-0) and Marquette (3-0) and building momentum for a run at a the program’s first regular-season conference crown, head coach Mike Brey’s squad is searching for a butterfly bandage after splitting its first four games.

Notre Dame, which had won 17 consecutive home games, gagged against a quality Huskies outfit (but one that was completely beatable) on Jan. 12, and simply didn’t show up Tuesday against the Red Storm at Madison Square Garden until it was too late. Now, at 14-3 overall with a home date with Rutgers Saturday, the Irish have some serious issues to address:

Big men, big problems
Notre Dame senior forward Jack Cooley called the Connecticut game (14 points, nine rebounds) his worst of the season. The stat line doesn’t tell the story, as defensive miscues, an inability to finish consistently at the rim and getting outrebounded 34-28 as a team by a Connecticut crew that ranked near the bottom of the league standings in that category were several reasons the veteran was so down on himself. The effort was there, but execution came up short.

Against St John’s Tuesday, Cooley simply wasn’t focused. Two silly fouls early in the first half put him on the bench, and a sub-par start to the second half resulted in him sitting the final 11 minutes. He finished with 10 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes of action.

Head coach Mike Brey, no matter how his starters are playing, typically turns to that group of five to close out games. Whatever the reason for Cooley’s mental fog, Brey felt it was too thick to put his best player in the game in crunch time. That’s a problem — a huge problem. Brey obviously was sending a message to Cooley, and it was easy to understand the coaching decision. But it’s hard to believe that even a clunking Cooley wouldn’t have made a difference down the stretch in a game that could have ended differently with one more timely Irish basket.

The good news is Tom Knight (six points, four blocks and three rebounds) came to play Tuesday. As likeable as Knight is, Notre Dame’s in trouble if he’s the long-term frontcourt solution off the bench. That was supposed to be senior center Garrick Sherman’s role. Sherman had his moments in nonconference play, including a career-high 22 points against Monmouth in November, but his Big East production (2.5 points and 2.0 rebounds) isn’t anywhere near what the Irish coaching staff expected it to be.

Martin missing in action
Speaking of nice guys, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the college game nicer than guard Scott Martin. However, Notre Dame didn’t fight the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility for the Valparaiso native just to see him bind like an engine without oil.

Even with all the ill-advised shots taken by freshman Cameron Biedscheid Tuesday, which prompted ESPN commentator and coaching legend Bob Knight to rip the rookie on several occasions during the telecast, at least he’s taking shots. Martin missed both attempts vs. St. John’s and went 1-for-3 for three points against Connecticut.

No matter how much Brey praises Martin’s leadership and defensive acumen, the veteran hasn’t lived up to that acclaim recently. Martin’s role isn’t to lead the team in scoring; it’s to be an experienced presence, reliable rebounder and relatively mistake-free defender. Treating the basketball like it’s covered in arsenic on the offensive end isn’t what a leader does, though, and the Irish need to be able to count on him for at least six-eight points per game. Like Cooley Tuesday, Martin, who came into the contest the second-best 3-point shooter (50 percent) in the Big East, was not on the floor in the closing minutes.

Connaughton raises his game
On the bright side, sophomore guard Pat Connaughton has clearly developed his overall game since his freshman campaign. More comfortable putting the ball on the floor, Connaughton came away with two baseline drives that resulted in nifty revers layups for the Irish. His last dart to the basket, however, was blocked by Chris Obekpa, who paces the nation in that category, with 7.6 seconds remaining and the Irish trailing 65-63.

Still, Connaughton is more of a well-rounded scoring threat than just a spot-up shooter from the corners in 2011-12. He gave Notre Dame seven points and five rebounds, but probably should have been even more aggressive on a night when the Irish needed to make up for a lack of production everywhere else other than Eric Atkins’ season-high 21 points and Jerian Grant’s 14-point contribution.

  • Good stuff Wes. This team needs to get straightened out in a hurry. No way a good/experienced team should lose the two games we just did. They get tight as a drum in close games and it needs to get fixed. Brey has done a great job at ND but my biggest complaint is his coaching in tight games. Cooley should have been on the floor in the last few minutes, i don't care how bad he was up to that point. I know he would have finished strong at the rim on that possesion that ended with i think Knight getting stuffed by the 6foot3 guard. At least he probably would have drawn a foul. It was a very frustrating loss last night.

    Two time Poster of The Week, 2011 and 2013.

  • Wes,forgot to add,lol, what are your thoughts on my above post. I am interested what you think since you cover this team up close the last few years.

    This post was edited by edd1066 15 months ago

    Two time Poster of The Week, 2011 and 2013.

  • Wes Morgan

    All valid points. I agree; no matter how poorly Cooley was playing, he needed to be on the floor at the end. Brey has talked about sticking with his starters in crunch time, then said last night he was sticking with the guys that made the late run. Hindsight is 20/20, but experience might have been the better route in that situation.

    Knight isn't used to being in a situation like that and I think no matter what the Irish would have gotten from Cooley, it would have been more than Knight could offer (thought Knight's effort should be praised).

    Cooley went through a stretch like this last year and fought his way out of it. I think folks' patience with Martin is simply wearing thin.

    I'm not sure why this team continues to tighten up in close games, but there will be plenty more of them the rest of the season, so they better find an answer soon. These were two games the Irish couldn't afford to lose with the meat of the Big East schedule still ahead.

  • Wes, in addition to all the good points you made, I'm just not seeing the spark I did when they made their run last year. It looks like the difference between a team hungry for respect, and one who plays like they've earned the right to coast, or are good enough to do so. This just in -- they aren't.

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    I may not be pretty, but I'm fast..... POTW 1/31/11 - 2/6/11

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