Final exams this week has created a break from the hardcourt. The team will be back in action this Saturday night against Elon. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Joyce Center. It should be easy coasting for the Irish until Big East conference play starts on January 3rd versus Louisville. Between now and then, Notre Dame has five home contests against Elon, Portland, Army, Rider and Stony Brook. The stretch of games only adds to the importance of beating both Alabama and Maryland. A record of 12-1 is a real possibility for the Irish heading into league action.
"We try to break it into two segments here," head coach Mike Brey said on Wednesday. "The three games here coming up before Christmas and the guys get a little break. We come back and have two more before league play. You want to stay in character. One of the things was that we were really focused on our preparation last week. Can we come back and do that again? I know this isn't Alabama or Maryland on the schedule. I do think that these three before Christmas and the two after gives us a chance to get better. They give us a chance to keep developing as a team. That's really our challenge there."
Saturday's game will be the first for Russell Carter since his magnificent performance against the Crimson Tide. The senior guard poured in a career-high 27 points, including six made three-pointers. Carter also threw down a few dunks that pleased a loud Joyce Center crowd. The senior leads the team in scoring at 16.6 points per game. Carter was recently named Big East Player of the Week.
"I think he has a great example of a steady demeanor," Brey said of Carter's Alabama effort. "You want to build on that. He and I will talk. When he's in that frame of mind, he's a fearless guy and unafraid. We need that from him. He was so good defensively. We had him on (Ronald) Steele. He got some big rebounds. People remember some of the shots he hit. But his all-around game was fabulous. He passed the ball attention to detail. When he's sloppy, he throws it one-handed sometimes. Everything was two handed. I got some tape for him to watch. His attention to detail was magnificent. When he's in that mode, he's a player of the week candidate."
When Brey mentioned Carter's defense, one can look at the stat sheet and see the senior leading the team with 20 steals. The 2.5 per game average is good for fourth in the Big East. Five of the 20 were versus the Crimson Tide while he held Steele, a pre-season All-American candidate on some lists, to 4-of-13 shooting from the field. He's learned to be more careful when to take chances on defense.
"He's always had a great knack for that," Brey said of Carter's penchant for steals. "What he's done a better job of is a balance of when to gamble and when not to. When we first had him here, everything was a gamble. We were put into five-on-four when he didn't get it. He's doing a better job- it's still a learning process- of when to go for those and when to be disciplined."
Another reason for the 7-1 record is the depth of the Notre Dame team. The same five players have started every contest for the Irish. Contributions from the bench have been a constant. Freshman Luke Harangody averages 12 PPG and provides a big, physical presence down low. Sophomore forward Zach Hillesland does a little bit of everything. He's second on the team in rebounds with five a game while chipping in a shade under five points a contest. Freshman Tory Jackson is a speedy threat at the point guard position. Nine players average 11 minutes or more of game action.
"We were in kind of an eight-man rotation last week," Brey said. "I still think nine is where you would like to get sometimes. Maybe over the next five games, it presents itself more. The eight guys who played last week are pretty confident and understand their roles. We feel pretty good about that. You have to keep nine, ten or eleven involved because you don't know where this thing is going with health, etc."