About Face?

Mike Brey's 3-3 Irish have ample time to turnaround their middling efforts to date. The 2013 squad can begin by rediscovering what made their predecessors from 2012 such a pleasant surprise and one of the most improved groups in program history.

There was a point in mid-December 2011 where Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey was forced to lay it on the line for his overwhelmed, overmatched troops. He essentially told them they weren't very good.

"Just one practice," asked Brey of his goal for the troops. "Not to win a game, but to have one good practice.

"In the back of my mind," said Brey of his then 8-5 Irish, "I was just hoping to get to the NIT."

They instead won 22 games, easily qualified for the NCAA Tournament, and finished fourth in the Big East on the strength of a program-record nine-straight conference wins with three seismic upsets intermixed.

Yet 13 months later, Brey has been forced to share an unfortunate truth again.

At 15-4 but 3-3 in league play, the Irish aren't as good as he, or they, thought they'd be. At least not yet.

"One of the reasons this one hurts so much is we haven't really proven ourselves yet," said sophomore Pat Connaughton following a loss to Connecticut on January 12. "The rest of the world doesn't really know how good we are. We wanted to get off to a better start than 2-1 to show that. A loss sets you back in the standings.

"It puts us pack behind the 8-ball when we're trying to move forward."

They've taken two steps back since and are in Tampa to face South Florida today, wounds from the a 16-point loss to Georgetown -- the second-worst conference home loss of the Brey era -- still fresh.

"It was an eerie feeling to be out of it for the last ten minutes of the game in our home building," said Brey of the unexpected beating at the hands of the Hoyas. "It was creepy. It was eerie. It was not pleasant. It was very foreign territory for all of us, fans included. Unless we can get our gears going it could happen again in this league. Last I checked, we have a pretty meaty February schedule with who is yet to come through here."

Tampa, then Two

The Irish have struggled to find consistent rhythm on offense, but its an ill-timed drop-off in the level of their overall team defense -- an aspect of the game that guided them through last season's run -- that waylaid efforts in late losses to Connecticut and St. John's, and helped erase a large lead vs. Rutgers (a three-point Irish win).

Now the Irish will play without their best team defender, 6th-year senior Scott Martin, out indefinitely with knee tendinitis. Martin had played poorly over the last four outings as a result of the injury, but there's no doubt his leadership, defensive rebounding, and defensive knowledge and toughness will be missed.

Add to that the recent benching of the team's "sixth starter" as Brey referred to transfer Garrick Sherman in the pre-season (Sherman hasn't played a minute in the last two games and just 11 combined in two losses prior) and the reality that 6'11" 245-pound senior set-shooter Tom Knight might not be capable of banging with Big East bigs underneath (no rebounds in more than 20 total minutes vs. Rutgers and Georgetown), and its apparent a change in approach -- and maybe personnel -- is afoot if the Irish are to turn their season around.

"I still have an open mind to Zach Auguste as we're in league play," said Brey of his 6'10" 230-pound freshman and future starting center at the program.

Auguste though has played in two games for a combined four minutes through six Big East matchups, in both instances with the contest long-decided. He, or Sherman, or Knight, or preferably two of the three, must contribute to ease the growing burden of second team all-Big East center Jack Cooley.

Auguste's classmate Cameron Biedscheid, a freshman scorer and usual dead-eye shooter, will play a major role in Martin's absence. Biedscheid played 20 minutes off the bench in the loss to Georgetown; 24 prior to that in the loss to St. John's.

The issue? Biedscheid shot a combined 1 for 14 in those defeats.

"My message to him is to keep shooting," said Brey of Biedscheid, another potential star down the line. "He has got to be a catch and shoot guy for us. We need him to make shots because we haven't gotten that consistently from anyone else really. I think he is our best pure shooter. I don't want him looking over his shoulder. He needs to keep taking shots."

Despite their struggles, the Irish were installed as favorites of 4.5 points on the road vs. South Florida today. They'll likewise be favored at home next Wednesday vs. Villanova and again at DePaul a week from today.

It seems the perfect time to right the ship.

"I haven't said, ‘We're taking the regular-season title goal off the board. I don't want to say that right now. But I think I'm pretty realistic about this league and where you're at and who you are and how you get a bid," said Brey.

"We need to reinvent ourselves a little bit this week before we play again. I don't want them to think that all is lost getting a tournament bid."

Its not. But a new approach and evolving combination of personnel, is necessary to that end.

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