Monday in Washington D.C. was the first time a very long time that No. 20/19 Notre Dame didn’t even make things interesting. The Fighting Irish (20-10, 12-5 Big East) did battle back at Madison Square Garden against a group of inhospitable St. John’s freshmen two days earlier, nearly pushing the game to overtime after falling behind by as many as 14 points.
Mike Brey and Co. come back home after two losses in three days on the road
But head coach Mike Brey’s team truly unraveled two days later in a 59-41 defeat at No. 11/12 Georgetown. After a nine-game winning streak was snapped by the Red Storm, the Irish simply ran out of steam versus the Hoyas.
“Sometimes you can only ride it so long,” Brey said Wednesday. “I don’t think you can stay hot all the way through this thing. To have a cooling-off period, and to use it constructively to get going again, that’s our challenge. I hope we can get it going again. But I don’t think you just stay on the stretch [we were] on. That’s just not normal in sport.”
Home has always been a reliable disinfectant for Notre Dame, which has been close to invincible on its own hardwood. The Irish are 99-7 in their last 106 games played at Purcell Pavilion — a .934 winning percentage over the course of the last six seasons that ranks third nationally.
They’ll look to bounce back Friday in the Big East finale against Providence (15-15, 4-13) before heading back to New York City for the league tournament. Arriving in the Big Apple with either a single- or double-bye hangs in the balance. Notre Dame is tied with Georgetown for third place in the standings, though the Hoyas would edge the Irish with the head-to-head tiebreaker. Syracuse (16-1) locked up a regular season crown and one of the four double-byes. Marquette, which plays Georgetown Saturday, is second with a 13-3 record. The Irish need to get by Providence to take care of business on their end, which would make 11-5 South Florida’s final two games inconsequential. Paired with a potential Marquette win over the Hoyas, a Notre Dave victory would secure a No. 3 seed in NYC.
“I think it’s always good for us when we’ve struggled or we’ve lost on the road to come back home and get practice reps on our floor and get the Wilson balls back in our hands and play a little bit,” Brey said. “I think it’s important for our group today and tomorrow in practice to play and get into a rhythm playing.”
Providence poses more of a challenge than its 4-13 conference record would indicate. Since the end of January, when the Friars dropped a three-point contest to South Florida, they’ve lost a total of six games by an average of 6.7 points. Providence is on a two-game win streak, which includes a 72-70 home victory against Connecticut Tuesday night. On Jan. 10, Providence pounded Louisville by 31 points.
“Winning a game at home to set the tone for New York City, we’ve always been able to come back and win at home,” Brey said. “We’ll have a heckuva challenge with what [Providence] did last night. I know what they did to Louisville up there at Providence. They can just get rolling; they can really score the ball. But practice time on our floor and playing well in our building has always been a great remedy to kind of hit the reset button.”
To burn or not to burn
Much of this team’s surprising success this season is the result of a clock-chomping burn offense that’s been executed well. That means being patient and making shots, something the Fighting Irish were unable to do against quicker teams at the beginning of the season and, most recently, versus fast and athletic squads in St. John’s and Georgetown. Switching gears has helped offset past shooting woes in the half-court set.
Fifth-year senior Tim Abromaitis will be honored Friday on Senior Night
“I think what we’d like to do is see if we can get out and push it a little bit and get some easy buckets,” Brey said of the final Big East regular season game. “That’s something we wanted to try and do a little more of. We actually did it a little in the St. John’s game and we were able to come back. A lot of the games we’ve come back in, especially on the road, we’ve run in the second half. I’d like to see us start out running, but we want to be smart about it. We’re not shutting the tempo down completely. I think it plays into the hands of Eric [Atkins] and Jerian [Grant]; it’s good for them to get out and go.”
Cooley’s cold night in the Capital
If junior forward Jack Cooley doesn’t win the league’s most improved player award, it might be because folks are still mistaking him for Luke Harangody. Cooley has been marvelous this season, averaging 13.8 points and 9.8 rebounds in Big East play. He was due for a clunker, which is what happened Monday in Washington D.C. — a two-point, zero-rebound misfire.
“I think Jack’s his own worst critic now,” said Brey, who admitted to getting on the junior forward at halftime against Georgetown. “He’s gotten to a level where I don’t have to be as hard on him; he’s hard on himself. That’s the mark of a guy who’s become a very good college basketball player. For him, he can get his hands on the ball on the backboard. That’s always been Jack’s way of getting going.
“Monday night was the [first] night in a very, very long time that he didn’t do that. He’s more disappointed than any of us. He’s not necessarily going to be a post-feed guy all the time. But when he gets offensive rebounds for us, and defensive rebounds, when he’s getting his hands on the ball that way, it really gets him into the game, and then we’re better.”
Senior Night uncertainty
Forward Tim Abromaitis, who was lost for the season with a knee injury suffered in a late-November practice, will dress Friday. It’s only a photo opportunity, however, as the fifth-year senior is obviously only three months removed from injury and in the rehabilitation process. He’s waiting for a decision from the NCAA as to whether or not he’ll be granted a medical hardship waiver for a sixth year. Abromaitis, who embodies what it means to be a student-athlete at Notre Dame, started 62 games and scored 1,137 points (13.7 average) and 398 rebounds (4.8 per game) in his career.
The outlook isn’t nearly as good as roommate and classmate Scott Martin’s. The swingman, averaging 9.4 points and 5.6 rebounds per contest this year, is crossing his fingers that the powers that be will take into consideration not only a missed 2009-10 season due to a knee injury, but that part of the reason he transferred from Purdue the previous year (requiring him to sit out 2008-09) was to help take care of his cancer-stricken father, which required multiple trips to Chicago for treatment.
Both will be honored for their services Friday just in case.
“Maybe we’re going to have one or two guys with the first back-to-back senior days,” Brey said. “It is a little unusual. I guess I look at it as certainly we might not get either one of them back, but I think Scott’s case, as I’ve said, has more of a chance than Tim’s. I kind of look at it as a night for Tim, to really honor him for all he’s done for our basketball program. It’s been a tough year for him. We’ve hurt for him more than he’s hurt for himself. Very well deserved for everything he’s done for our program.”
Junior forward Mike Broghammer sat out Monday’s game after taking a shot to the knee Sunday in practice. The 6-foot-9, 265-pound Minnesota native has undergone surgeries on both knees throughout his Irish career. Broghammer did practice Wednesday morning, but his future with the program looks to be nearing an end.
“We need him for practice and for the rest of this season,” Brey said. “I think in the spring what Mike and I have to talk about is, is it worth it to keep going physically on those knees? He is very much on the same page that maybe it isn’t. ... As frustrated as Mike is, he’s also very, very realistic about the body has broken down a couple times.”