Notre Dame men’s basketball coach Mike Brey said this week is about mentally mending as much as getting physical rest. After getting through a road swing through Providence and Pittsburgh with a 1-1 record, the Fighting Irish (21-6, 9-5 Big East) are idle until Sunday’s home game against Cincinnati.
Head coach Mike Brey's squad will watch how the Big East plays out this week before returning to action Sunday against Cincinnati.
Having overcome a 16-point deficit Monday at Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, which sits in fifth place in the Big East standings, clinched a first-round bye in next month’s league tournament in New York.
“I can be a fan and root a little bit,” Brey said during a teleconference Wednesday about the opportunity to watch a number of critical conference games this week. “We’re always rooting [while playing] down the stretch. Certainly when you have a win like we did Monday, it’s nice to put that in the bank for a while and see what the rest of the week does. [It’s] very familiar territory for us heading down the stretch in the midst of maybe getting a double bye. We’ve been in that race before. Of course, our last four [games] are very challenging.”
Every game has been a challenge recently for the Irish, which have struggled to find consistency offensively. Senior forward Jack Cooley said the team must find a way to play 40 minutes like it performed in the second half against the Panthers. Brey said it’s not that simple.
“We may only be spurts,” he admitted. “We may only be spurts. It’s nice to say that we need to play that way for 40 minutes. The thing is, we’re not playing five-on-zero. Pitt really can guard you, and they physically guarded the heck out of us for 15 minutes and totally frustrated us. The four remaining games are all really good teams. What I think we’ve come to grips with is we’re going to have our lulls; we’re going to be unsmooth. Can we just go back and guard and rebound like that? That’s hard when guys’ offense aren’t going good; will they do that? On the road the other night, Pittsburgh, we better do that or we’re going to get blown out.
“I think it’s me trying to get them to realize, if we have our lulls, we have our lulls. Let’s just rely on defending and rebounding the ball and be mentally tough enough to know if it’s a close game, we’ve been pretty good in close games. If we blow an 11-point lead, all right, then it’s a game situation — not what should have been. This is where we’re at, let’s be good in [game situations].”
Notre Dame is still in a situation where it doesn’t know exactly if or when sixth-year Scott Martin will return. Martin has missed eight games since reinjuring his knee against Georgetown on Jan. 21. Despite Martin telling ESPN’s Jay Bilas prior to Monday’s broadcast that Sunday against the Bearcats is the target date, Brey pumped the brakes.
“I think Scott Martin is talking more to Jay Bilas than he is to me,” Brey joked. “I don’t know about this weekend, but I think he’s really trying to make some progress towards a full practice or going live five-on-five on Friday, which would be a big step. I don’t know that he’d be really ready with all the time he’s missed and just two days of practice.
“I think we’ve got to see a couple full days of practice. But we are making progress; I’m encouraged. … This is his last go-around; he just wants to be able to help the team in some way, shape or form. Whether it’s ever back to the minutes and role he had before, who knows? Maybe he can’t do that, and that’s not us. He does want to help and I would love to have that body available as we head down the stretch.”
Scott Martin (middle) still doesn't know if and when he'll be able to suit up for the Irish.
Brey made it clear he’s only interested in getting Martin back if it means multiple games. He has no desire to squeeze all he can out of Martin for one game if it means losing him the rest of the way. If Martin manages to get healthy enough for sustainable action, it means tweaking what has become an eight-man rotation.
Notre Dame went big by sliding senior forward Tom Knight into Martin’s place. Knight has averaged 6.4 points and four rebounds in 30 minutes per game since taking over.
“You talk about delivering in crisis; I’m really pleased there,” Brey said. “… Certainly Tom Knight has flat out delivered.”
Martin was averaging 7.9 points and 5.9 rebounds prior to the injury. However, senior center Garrick Sherman and freshman power forward Zach Auguste have contributed more since Martin was sidelined, combining for 8.1 points per contest in Big East play.
If Martin were to return, there would be fewer opportunities for Sherman and Auguste unless Brey decides to play Martin on the perimeter more and trim freshman forward Cam Biedscheid’s time off the bench.
“That’s what’s got me so energized,” Brey said. “It’s February … who are we today? Who’s available? You’d like to have everybody involved. The reality is, you get a veteran guy like that back, somebody’s minutes are going down.
“We could use another perimeter guy, and a 24-year-old guy who has been through the battles. We can’t get away from Cam, because all of the sudden Cam can make five threes and get going. That night the other night [vs. Pittsburgh] was so physical it wasn’t his kind of night. But Sunday could be his afternoon.”