Brey's Irish have lined up and knocked down seven tomato cans inside the Purcell Pavilion this season and the end result is a Strength of Schedule ranking of 344.
There are 351 teams in Division 1 basketball.
In the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee, Notre Dame is 1-0 at home -- they defeated perennial March maven Michigan State, 79-78 in overtime on Dec. 3. They're thus 2-1 as a basketball team, not 9-1 (splitting neutral site games with UMass and Providence in mid-November). Tonight's contest is the first of 18 Athletic Coast Conference games for the Irish and its one Brey's bunch can't afford to lose.
Staked as favorites of 10.5 points over a struggling (4-4) Florida State squad, the Irish can solidify their recently-minted Top 25 status with a conference win tonight followed by a Crossroads Classic victory over Purdue in Indianapolis next Saturday.
Thereafter? Two more walks-in-the park: Northern Illinois on Dec. 22 and Hartford on Dec. 30.
Seventeen matchups with the ACC follow including nine on the road. It's imperative the Irish begin that gauntlet at 4-1, err, 13-1. An NCAA bid would be tough to attain with any defeat in December -- and more than one loss on their home floor this winter.
2.) They Must Protect This (Backboard): I call it bludgeoning. Brey refers to it as "playing volleyball." Whatever your descriptive phrase, it's a familiar site for fans of the sometimes vertically challenged, sometimes light-in-the-britches, never quite athletic or big enough Irish.
The reality is, Notre Dame will be out-rebounded often this season. And that accepted weakness on the defensive glass can greatly impact the team's half-court defense as a whole.
"I think we can defend the first shot (well," said Brey in reference to a Florida State team that boasts a trio of seven-footers among its rotation. "But can we rebound it?"
At present, the Seminoles are a poor basketball teams -- ranked among the ACC's bottom dwellers in scoring, scoring defense, assist-to-turnover ratio, blocked shots, assists, 3-point field goal percentage, and defending the 3-point shot.
But they can rebound.
Notre Dame's straight line and clear path to victory Saturday night is thus obvious.
3.) Perimeter Monster: Sophomore Steve Vasturia began the 2014 season in obvious deference to talented teammates Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, and Demetrius Jackson. Over the last three outings, and at his head coach's behest, the sophomore swingman has found a rhythm:
12 points against Michigan State, 10 more against Fairleigh Dickinson, a career-high 19 vs. Mount St. Mary's -- the latter highlighted by perfection: 7 for 7 from the field, 3 for 3 from beyond the arc, 2 for 2 from the charity stripe.
“We’ve created a monster,” joked Brey of Vasturia's new fondness for the hoop. “This is like the next step in the whole aggressiveness thing.”
Described as the team's best defensive player by Brey, Vasturia's assimilation into the offense caught his classmate Jackson's attention.
“It’s a game-changer,” said Jackson. “That’s one thing that’s been in the back of my mind – when we can get everyone to be aggressive, how dangerous a team we can be.”
Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton has recent film evidence of that reality. Expect the Seminoles defensive athletes to challenge the up-and-coming Irishman tonight.
4.) Who's No. 6? Sixth-man V.J. Beachem continues his recovery from a plantar fascia injury -- Beachem hopes to return after Christmas with one warm-up outing against Hartford prior to the resumption of ACC play. In his stead has stepped Austin Torres as Brey's most trusted bench contributor. Torres does the dirty work, and that's what these Irish need.
But they need more than Torres. Junior Austin Burgett brings athleticism and the occasional offensive punch. Freshman Bonzie Colson offers an effective, if awkward style that results more often than not in productive minutes. Fellow freshman Martinas Geben has struggled, but is nonetheless crucial to the team's winter successes (or failures) in the paint.
Contributions from more than one of the above are essential throughout ACC play -- considering the Seminoles strength up front, all of the above might need to contribute tonight on the defensive glass.
Which brings us to…
5.) Big Man's Burden: Junior Zach Auguste has thrived at home vs. lesser foes -- a double-double vs. FDU (trust me, irrelevant if you don't recognize the acronym), 19 points and 8 boards vs. MSM (ditto), and a trio of strong opening efforts in which he averaged 20 points per game facing the likes of Binghamton and teams similar to Binghamton.
Then there's his combined seven rebounds against Providence and Michigan State, and well, you get the point.
Notre Dame needs it's only veteran big man to mirror the play of their redshirt-freshman backup Austin Torres -- do the dirty work.
Fewer (never again) left-handed jump hooks from outside the lane -- far more banging and bruising inside. Auguste has offensive skills that can help the Irish -- they're secondary to what he can bring with a 6'10" 245-pound frame.
6.) No More Passive Pat: Passive isn't accurate, because Irish senior captain Pat Connaughton rebounds (at six-foot-five inches tall, he leads the team), defends, moves the basketball, and leads with an obvious passion. As Notre Dame's level of competition increases, so too should Connaughton's point totals.
Just 4 for 13 from beyond the arc over his last three games, look for the senior sharpshooter to open up the Irish offense with a handful of wing and corner treys in tonight's first half.
And look for the Irish to win, though not easily, as a result.