"I didn't even talk about the (North Florida) game," head coach Mike Brey about his talk in the locker room after the victory. "I talked about the regular season Big East play. I'm actually having my guys over to dinner (on New Year's Eve) and talk about the 18 games and the psychologically of the 18 games. They've been pretty consistent about it the past seven years. We're not even going to talk about the game. We're moving forward."
What did Notre Dame fans learn in the non-conference schedule? The Irish lost back-to-back contests against Baylor and Georgia Tech in the Paradise Jam Tournament before ripping off eight wins in a row. One of those victories was critical for Notre Dame. The Irish beat Kansas State 68-59 in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. It was a big non-conference win for Notre Dame and one that'll look good on a NCAA Tournament resume in March.
Also, the one-two punch of Luke Harangody and Rob Kurz will give Big East opponents fits down low. Harangody is Notre Dame's leader in scoring at 17.7 PPG and rebounding at 8.9 a contest. The sophomore forward already has five double-doubles on the season and the physical nature of his play down low should help give the Irish a little toughness in the paint area. Kurz is second in scoring at 14.2 PPG and second in rebounding at 7.8 boards a contest. The senior captain heads into Big East play with back-to-back double-doubles.
On the perimeter, Kyle McAlarney leads the team from three-point range. The junior guard is third in scoring at 14.1 PPG and is hitting 43 percent of his shots from three-point range. Junior Ryan Ayres has stepped up his play as of late. The junior forward, in addition to being a defensive stopper, is fourth in scoring at nine PPG and is hitting 51 percent from three-point range. Point guard Tory Jackson has totaled double digit assists in two of the past three games and the quick sophomore leads the charge of the fast break.
West Virginia comes into South Bend at 10-2 after a double overtime loss to Oklahoma. The contest between the two Big East foes will be shown on ESPN2 at 7 PM. Before the defeat, the Mountaineers had won eight in a row. West Virginia is first in the nation in scoring margin and in the top-10 in scoring offense. The Mountaineers have a new head coach this season in Bob Huggins, who left Kansas State after John Beilein departed Morgantown for Michigan. Brey thinks Huggins made the right move.
"The one thing I told Bob Huggins when I saw him recruiting in Arkansas was, ‘Hey, you're back in the league,'" Brey said. "He said, ‘Yeah, but I left two lottery picks at Kansas State.' I told him, ‘Yeah, but you got a better team in Morgantown.' Whoever coached this team was going to be a lucky team. This team won a (Big East Tournament) championship together. This nucleus is pretty confident."
West Virginia has four players averaging in double figures. Alex Ruoff leads the team in scoring at 16.1 PPG. The 6-6 forward is shooting 56 percent from the field and is also tops in steals with 23. Joe Alexander, a 6-8 junior, is second in scoring at 15.9 PPG and is shooting 48 percent from the floor. As a team, the Mountaineers are connecting on 49 percent of their field goals. Da'sean Butler, a 6-7 sophomore, averages 13 PPG while shooting 58 percent from the field and Darris Nichols, a 6-3 senior, leads the team in assists while averaging 11 PPG. There are noticeable differences between Huggins and Beilein.
"He's tweaked them," Brey said of Huggins. "They're rebounding the ball. They're still shooting the three-pointer but not as much. Last year, 50 percent of their attempts were threes. This year, it's 35. They still have guys that can shoot the ball. They're up in assists to turnover. They spread the floor. There are two similar teams playing on Thursday and both have skill guys."