The Irish stand at 1-3 in conference play and 10-5 overall with two of their next three games at home. A difficult opening two contests sent Notre Dame on the road to Pittsburgh and DePaul and nothing to show for gutsy performances that both ended in defeats. A home loss to Syracuse was quickly avenged by a 92-77 pasting of Providence that saw the Irish shoot 56.9 percent from the field, including 13-of-21 from three-point range. Notre Dame is in the middle of a six-day break before their contest on Friday night at Marquette and head coach Mike Brey said the time would be used wisely by his team.
"We need a rest," Brey said after last Saturday's win over the Friars. "The first four league games for us have been grueling. We've invested a lot and got smacked around in three of them. We need two days to get out legs underneath us. It comes at a good time and we have to get these kids back in school. It's back into a routine. We'll go into Milwaukee with nothing to lose. That'll be the tone. Our frame of mind going in will be great."
A home loss to Syracuse last week means Notre Dame will have to get one back on the road. A chance at that will present itself on Friday against the Golden Eagles. This is the same Marquette team that handed third-ranked Connecticut a 94-79 loss a few weeks back. A win in Milwaukee could set up a home date against the Hoyas with a chance to get back to .500 in league play. A loss in either game sets up the unfortunate three-game stretch of Villanova, at West Virginia and at Louisville for the Irish to climb back to respectability. Brey sees the reconfigured and tougher Big East Conference as a marathon, not a sprint.
"It's a matter of who can stay together after two months," Brey said. "That's the key thing. We have been tested. But I have a lot of confidence in our leadership and the character of our guys. Let's get some rest and get ready for a wild scene in the Bradley Center. It'll be an NBA-game presentation. They do a great job up there."
Scoring has not been the problem for the Irish in conference play. Notre Dame has scored 82 points or more in three of their four league games. The three-point shot, a staple of Brey's coaching philosophy, has been an effective weapon as the Irish are second in the Big East in three-point accuracy at 40 percent a contest.
The defense has been a concern. Notre Dame has allowed 84.5 points per game in conference play, albeit one contest, Pittsburgh, went into double overtime. Even in the Irish's lone league win over Providence, they allowed the Friars 77 points on 47 percent shooting from the field. The next two opponents present some match-up problems. Marquette has two dynamic scorers in Steve Novak and freshman Dominic James while Georgetown leads the Big East in field goal percentage. Brey doesn't shy away from what type of team he has.
"We're an offensive program," Brey said. "Let's not kid anyone here. Those are the kids we try to recruit and then we try to get them to defend. I want to put numbers up on the board. We want to slow guys down defensively at key times. We're not going to smother people or turn you over.
"I thought we did a good job at only letting them get one shot at key times (vs. Providence). If we can do that, that's who we are defensively. I want us to make them put up a challenging shot and be one and done. That's is good for us."
One player that's been good for the Irish as of late is Rob Kurz. The sophomore forward started out the season on a high note with 18 points and eight rebounds in a win over Lafayette. Since that performance, Kurz had been up and down and sharing minutes with freshman Luke Zeller. However, in Big East play, he's averaging nine points a game, including 15 in the loss to Syracuse.
"Kurz is really developing," Brey said. "That's the thing lost in losing three league games. He's really improving. I don't want him to be down because he's active and flying around. He's making some mistakes but they are of aggression."
Another young player coming off a solid performance is Kyle McAlarney. Brey admitted the freshman guard had a tough opening week in conference play. Most notably, McAlarney was beat by Syracuse's Gerry McNamara for the clinching shot in the loss to the Orange. The freshman responded with 12 points in the win over Providence, including three shots from behind the arc on three consecutive possessions for Notre Dame right before the half to send them into the locker room with a double digit lead and momentum.
The play of McAlarney last game meant less playing time for Russell Carter. The sophomore saw only four minutes of action after averaging more than 26 the first 14 ballgames. With big contests looming for the Irish, Brey knows it's crunch time for his squad and he's going to go with the hot hand.
"If he has a problem with it, he's on scholarship," Brey said in response to a question about Carter's playing time in the win over the Friars. "That's his responsibility. I'm not going to massage too many egos. We have to come back, get ready to work and practice."