Matt Cashore /

Preview: Notre Dame @ Illinois

Irish still seeking identity on both ends of the court, although a better free-throw shooting performance against Monmouth and Alabama would have solved many of their woes.

• Game 7: Notre Dame (4-2) @ Illinois (3-4)
Date: Dec. 2, 2015
What: ACC/Big Ten Challenge
• Place: State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
Time: 9:15 p.m. ET
Opponent Nickname: Illini
Head coach: John Groce (4th year; 65-44)
Conference: Big Ten
Location: Champaign-Urbana, Ill.
2014-15 record: 19-14 (9-9 in Big Ten)

It’s been a rollercoaster early season for Illinois with wins against North Dakota State, Chicago State and Alabama-Birmingham and losses to North Florida, Providence, Chattanooga and Iowa State.

The Illini have been hit hard by injuries, including the team’s leading rebounder – Mike Thorne, Jr. – who suffered a torn meniscus in his left knee in Saturday’s loss to Iowa State.

Gone for the second straight season is point guard Tracy Abrams, who missed 2014-15 with a torn ACL, and will now be sidelined throughout 2015-16 with a ruptured Achilles. Injuries have caused guards Kendrick Nunn (thumb) and Jaylon Tate (finger), and forward Leron Black (knee) to miss time this season as well.

Nunn has played the last two games, scoring 19 points with four three-pointers in the loss to Iowa State and netting 18 with three three-pointers in the victory over Alabama-Birmingham. Nunn is one of four three-point threats for the Illini, including junior Malcolm Hill, and freshmen Jalen Coleman-Lands and Aaron Jordan.

Hill is averaging 16.7 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. In addition to Thorne’s 8.4 rebounds per game, the Illini lose his 13.4 scoring average.

Losses in two out of three games at the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando, Fla., over Thanksgiving weekend dropped Notre Dame out of the top 25 and has Mike Brey energized and philosophical heading into what will be a tough environment with tonight’s opening of the newly-renovated State Farm Center at Illinois.

“We’re unranked and we’re poor, and we have an atmosphere to really coach and work in,” said Brey, whose squad lost 70-68 to Monmouth and 74-73 to Alabama with a 68-62 victory over Iowa sandwiched in between.

“In a twisted sort of way, it’s my favorite place to be, like I’m excited, I’m energized, because our track record has been that when we’ve been off the radar and back to square one, we’ve made some great progress.”

Brey thrives in the underdog role, and suddenly, with visions of an Elite Eight trip and near-miss against No. 1 Kentucky now well behind them, the Irish can move forward with their present-day identity.

“I kind of like where we’re at because I almost think the only way this group can get better is to be unranked, poor and trying to figure it out,” Brey said.

“Coming out of the weekend, you’ve really got last year off of you now. You went into the pre-season with some of last year’s momentum. Now you’re in your own little bubble, trying to get better. Some of our best improvement and development in my years here have come in this scenario.”

While the Irish are a work in progress defensively (particularly dealing with ball screens) and in transition offense, a little better performance at the free-throw line would have solved many of the issues that plagued them in Orlando.

The Irish converted just 8-of-17 free throws against Monmouth in a two-point loss while Zach Auguste’s five missed free throws – including a pair with a one-point Irish lead and 28 seconds remaining – set up Alabama senior guard Retin Obasohan’s game-winning layup with eight seconds left.

“We’ve got to make free throws,” Brey said. “You escape probably 2-1 if you make free throws.”

At least Brey’s sense of humor has not left him.

“We’re going to work on shooting them freakin’ underhand today,” Brey said.

“Perimeter oriented. They lost their big guy (Mike Thorne, Jr.), but they’ve got a lot of guards, so perimeter oriented and a lot of ball screens.

“Can we stay in front of drivers? We didn’t do a good job of that against Alabama, and Illinois will come at us with perimeter guys. And then ball-screen coverage. (Let’s say) they’re on a run and we’re coming down for an offensive possession. Are we going to be frazzled, or can we be poised, run something, and get a bucket to calm a crowd down?

“New territory for this nucleus.”

Demetrius Jackson leads the Irish in scoring at 18.3 points per game while shooting .526 from the field, including 10-of-26 (.385) from three-point range. Zach Auguste is averaging a double-double at 13.8 points and 10.7 rebounds, including 23 of Notre Dame’s 75 offensive rebounds.

Steve Vasturia (12.7 ppg.) and V.J. Beachem (12.5 ppg.) round out the quartet of double-digit scorers. Bonzie Colson is averaging 8.8 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. Top Stories