First off, the Irish have to start the end of the non-conference season off on a good note. On Saturday night at the Joyce Center, they welcome in Elon to South Bend. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m. Notre Dame just went through final examinations week and now can concentrate on basketball fully without the prospect of classes over winter break. It will be nine days between games for the Irish. The first contest after the examination period always is a moment of trepidation for head coach Mike Brey.
"I always worry about the game after exams, no matter what territory you were in the week before," Brey said. "It's a grind. You have some young guys. Our two freshmen (Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson), it's their first time. We got two playing a lot of basketball for us and they are key guys. It's an intense week for the freshmen.
"But this group gets it. They've been pretty good. I told them on Sunday when we anticipated a ranking that, ‘Guys, as you're walking around campus and the climate is a little different, remember what got you here and how you guys have worked and how much time you have invested.' I think we're pretty grounded."
Notre Dame is also pretty good in the statistical rankings in the Big East. The Irish are first in the conference in scoring offense, averaging 86 points per game. Notre Dame is beating opponents by an average of 21 PPG, second only to Connecticut's 29 PPG mark. Here are some more: second in free throw percentage (74 percent), second in field goal percentage (51 percent), fourth in steals and fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio. These numbers should go up with Elon, Portland, Rider, Army and Stony Brook next on the schedule. Surprisingly, the Irish are fifth in rebounds per game and fourth in rebounding margin.
"I think the thing that's underrated about our team, and (Alabama head coach) Mark Gottfried said it after the game, our feet move better than people think," Brey said. "That's one. The other is that we're beginning to be a tough group and physical. We need to be more physical. That's been an area where we've stepped up."
To say Elon comes into Saturday night's contest struggling would be an understatement. The Phoenix are just 1-6 on the season. As stated above, Notre Dame outscores the opposition by an average of 21 PPG. Elon's scoring margin is -19 on the season. After beating Montreat 85-72 to even the record at 1-1, the Phoenix have lost five in a row, all by double digits.
The Notre Dame defense might be licking their chops because Elon averages 18.9 turnovers a game while shooting a lowly 39 percent from the field. They are led by 6-6 senior LeVonn Jordan's 20 PPG and five RPG average, both team highs. Besides Brett James 13 PPG, these are the only two players averaging in double figures. A side note: South Bend, IN native Chris Chalko is on the Phoenix roster. The 6-8 senior forward attended Marian High School and averages 6.7 PPG this season.
"The local kid is playing well," Brey said of Chalko. "He's a real good player. I remember him when my son was still playing a little AAU basketball. Great kid and a real good player.
"They've struggled because they are trying to get their guards some experience. Their assist-to-turnover has been tough. For us, no matter what happened last week, I'm always scared to death about what's coming up and being focused and being ready. When you get into this mode, your focus is more on what are we doing well and what do we want to continue to do well, what we need to improve on and what can we do better. There are things we're going to look at and the focus is going to be on us."