• Game 4: Monmouth (2-1) @ Notre Dame (3-0)
• Date: Nov. 26, 2015
• Place: Orlando, Fla.
• Time: 6:30 p.m. ET
• TV: ESPNU
• Opponent Nickname: Hawks
• Head coach: King Rice
• Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC)
• Location: West Long Branch, N.J.
• 2014-15 record: 18-15 (13-7)
Notre Dame football takes center stage Saturday evening with what amounts to a playoff game against the No. 9 Stanford Cardinal, but Irish basketball fans will get a glimpse of their squad prior, and potentially after that west coast tussle with an expected three-game set on tap this weekend – each against a quality foe.
Beginning Thanksgiving evening somewhere between your first slice of pumpkin pie and an unnecessary extra cocktail is a 6:30 tip-off between the 17th ranked Irish and upset-minded Monmouth Hawks.
Former North Carolina point guard King Rice’s squad has already taken out UCLA on the Bruins home court this season.
Now in his fourth season at the helm and a National Coach of the Year Award finalist last season, Rice’s unit is guided by the veteran tandem of Justin Robinson and Deon Jones; the former leads the Hawks through three games with a 24.1 points-per-game average including 28 in a win over Drexel and the same total in Monmouth’s only loss, a 101-91 decision at USC. Jones ranks fourth in scoring at 10.3 per game and at six-foot-six, has pulled down a team-high 8.7 boards.
Junior forward Collin Stewart provides a spark off the bench, scoring 12 ppg., a number matched by freshman guard Micah Seaborn. Stewart pumped in 19 points in the aforementioned overtime upset of the Bruins.
The Hawks are staked as 10-point underdogs to the Irish in the Orlando-based tournament that likewise includes Dayton, Iowa, USC, Alabama, No. 23 Xavier and No. 21 Wichita State – the latter you might remember as Notre Dame’s conquered foe last March in the NCAA’s Sweet 16.
THEIR NEW REALITY
Prior to March 2015, the words “tournament” and “Notre Dame” formed an unsettling combination for Irish basketball fans. The NCAA Tournament was viewed as nothing more than a springtime wasteland, and conference tournaments generally offered a mixed bag for Notre Dame: solid early, inevitably disappointing late.
But head coach Mike Brey’s run through Tobacco Road (3-0) and to the Elite Eight (3-1 and oh-so-close) has changed that perception for his current crop of competitors. This weekend’s tournament – not unlike the same played over Thanksgiving 2010, then referred to as the Old Spice Classic – offers Brey’s Irish a chance at resume-building wins.
(Notre Dame defeated Georgia, California, and eventual No. 15 Wisconsin to claim the 2010 tournament crown.)
A win over Monmouth Thursday evening would set up a Friday night matchup against the winner of Iowa and Dayton (both 3-0). If tournament officials have their druthers, Notre Dame will then face a Sunday rematch with Wichita State and a Shockers team that returns the bulk of its key pieces from last year’s Sweet 16 battle.
"I like that we get a lot of games at a high level of competition playing for a championship," said Brey of the prospects for the weekend. “You have the chance to cut nets down. We did it last time in Orlando, and this group did it not that long ago in Greensboro (the 2015 ACC Tournament championship).
"They're excited that they get to play for a championship."
One step at a time.
87, 86, and 83 vs. 84, 91, and 82 – points aplenty to date this season by Notre Dame and Monmouth, respectively. No, there won’t be many lulls in the action Thursday night when the Hawks and Irish offenses do battle in Orlando.
Notre Dame will attempt to mitigate the damage from beyond the arc, that in the wake of a Milwaukee visit to South Bend last week that saw the xx drill 14 of 21 offerings from long range. More important Thursday is the Irish defense of dribble penetration, an area in which Robinson in particular excels.
“They guards can really get into the lane,” Brey noted of Monmouth’s oft-utilized four-guard attack, one that includes Je’lon Hornbeak, an Oklahoma transfer.
Robinson drives Monmouth offensively and the 5’8” playmaker will likely be defended by one of the nation’s best on-ball defenders, Irish junior Demetrius Jackson. If lanky freshman swingman Micah Seaborn gets rolling, the rookie will inevitably draw Jackson’s classmate Steve Vasturia as a defender, the latter lauded repeatedly over the last three seasons by Brey for his defensive prowess.
Vasturia will also at times check the more physical Jones, pending Notre Dame’s defensive needs over the course of 40 minutes.
“He’s amazing defensively,” said Brey of Vasturia’s efforts against Milwaukee, adding that whenever the Irish had a defensive breakdown, his junior swingman was not involved. “Steve did not make a defensive mistake today,” Brey said.
If the Irish guard tandem can keep Monmouth’s many six-foot-six and under weapons in check, a semi-final date for Friday awaits.