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.