NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Mike Brey made it clear that he wanted to use the final two games before conference play to work on some things, paramount among those were working on defense and rebounding.
Notre Dame did both well in its 88-50 win over Delaware State on Saturday.
The Irish held the Hornets to 19 of 51 shooting (37.3%) and used the defensive pressure to kick start the rest of their game.
"When we get into teams defensively it gets our energy level up," Kyle McAlarney said. "We rebound better, we play better offense, we are able to transition, we dug up on them. Getting on them defensively really helped us out."
Perhaps more importantly, the Irish were able to mix in some zone.
"We were able to work on some zone in the second half, played a lot of zone. We're going to have to get into that, especially in Big East play," Brey said. "It was good to work on it and work on it with a big lineup with Zach (Hillesland) as your third perimeter guy with (Luke) Zeller and (Luke Harangody)."
Harangody knows that the Irish will need to use zone down the road.
"We got to show a couple of different things and that is good for us these last couple of games going into the Big East season," he said. "We're going to have to do that in league play."
While Brey was happy to see his guys get a chance to play some zone, that does not mean that he was in love with what he saw.
"We have a lot of work to do on it. That's one of the things that we have to work on when we get come back from Christmas, when we get into a training camp mode and have some practice time," he said. "It was good to play it for 15 minutes tonight and it'll be good to work on it when we get from Christmas."
For whatever reason, Notre Dame has more success in the zone on the road.
"I just feel people come in here because of the streak and shoot it better than they should," Brey said. "We've been a better team zone on the road where you can get a team a little tight in their own building and they can get a little nervous and they miss some shots and their crowd gets nervous."
Brey reasserted that he would only use the zone so much.
"I'm not going to force that because if we can keep people from scoring the ball," he said. "If you sit in that zone and too many threes go in, now all of a sudden a team that maybe labors to score is scoring in the 70's and you've got a ballgame… it's a fine line."
After letting up 17 offensive rebounds against Boston University last Saturday, 13 in the first half, the Irish limited Delaware State to just six offensive rebounds and four second-chance points in the entire game.
Notre Dame held a distinct size advantage over the Hornets that helped the Irish win the rebounding margin 41-24 and Brey said that was what he expected.
"We really had an advantage as far as size and everything, but I think it's great that we were on it and we were around it. That's something like zone stuff, those are reps that we have to get," he said. "I think it's a little something to build on."
POLL POSITION: Notre Dame entered the week ranked 14th in the Associated Press Poll and 12th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll. The Irish figure to move up in both on Monday as five teams ranked ahead of them lost this week.
Four top-10 teams went down on Saturday with No. 5/5 Texas losing 67-63 to No. 19/22 Michigan State. Xavier and Gonzaga entered the week 7th and 8th respectively in the AP and tied for 7th in the ESPN/USA Today Poll. The Musketeers and Bulldogs both lost on Saturday with Xavier getting smoked by No. 6/6 Duke 82-64 and Gonzaga losing to No. 2 Connecticut in overtime, 88-83.
Louisville is ranked ninth in both polls, but will drop after falling at Minnesota 70-64 on Saturday.
Syracuse, which is ranked 11th in both polls, lost on Monday night when Cleveland State threw in a 60-footer at the buzzer at the Carrier Dome. The Orange bounced back with a 72-65 win at No. 23/21 Memphis on Saturday.
The Big East continues to prove that it is the nation's toughest confidence with quality independent victories.
"Certainly, those are two great wins today for those guys. Connecticut was dead in the water and came roaring back, again you have two power games against Connecticut," said Brey. "Syracuse has become a huge power game now."
Brey admitted that it is tough to figure out who to root for sometimes.
"I go back and forth. People say, ‘Oh, we need the league RPI.' Sometimes I think there's a way of looking at it saying, ‘We don't want anybody else getting too many good non-league wins.' We've got a great one in Texas," he said. "I never go in counting on a bid, certainly a lot of people around here are trying to figure out our seed already, I'm trying to get a darn bid."
But there are times when rooting interests are clear.
"I will always root for Texas. I'm very disappointed they didn't take care of business tonight, I'm going to call Rick Barnes tonight. I hook ‘em horns. There's no question," Brey laughed. "Go Carolina, keep on plugging and you know what, we need the Hoosiers to go 8-8 in the Big Ten and do their thing."
The players pay attention to all of the rankings and potential seedings as well.
"We're aware of that," Ryan Ayers said. "Guys love watching college basketball. We're aware of where different teams are ranked in the country."
It will be interesting to see how far the voters move a team like Gonzaga down for a tough loss against a tough opponent. Notre Dame's ranking next week could also be affected by whether or not any teams jump them.
No. 17/16 Ohio State, who beat Notre Dame earlier this month, is still undefeated at 8-0 and No. 13/18 Purdue (9-2) was impressive in a 76-58 victory over No. 22/20 Davidson on Saturday.
DISHES & DIMES: The Irish handed out 25 assists on Saturday while just turning it over four times. If Brey has any cause for concern in that department, it is in becoming too confident.
"I just don't want to take it for granted because it's amazing they do this pretty consistently," he said. "They're very proud of leading the nation in assists last year. That plaque is proudly displayed and I know it's something they'd like to do again."
The Irish staff has done a great job of identifying recruits that fit in the program.
"I think it starts with recruiting. I think we really try to go after basketball IQ guys, guys that have a feel for the game," said Brey. "What's really helped us lately is we have big guys that are so good with the ball. Our perimeter has always been good with the ball, but we're into a cycle now where we're trying to really do that more with recruiting and get big guys who can really pass the ball and understand the game."
Brey used his Big East Player of the Year as an example.
"I think Luke Harangody has come miles with the ball. Some of those little pitch backs to Kyle, that's like new in his arsenal," he said. "That's where he's really improving and understanding the game more."
RESERVES GET TIME: The blowout win gave Notre Dame the opportunity to play 11 players, nine played 13 minutes or more.
"It was nice to see some guys come off the bench and do some things," said Brey. "It was good to get Nash extended minutes and get him active and bouncing around a little bit as we get closer to Big East play."
Harangody noted that Nash and Scott helped the Irish on the boards."Carleton and Ty Nash gave us big minutes in that department too," said Harangody.
Brey was impressed with the way that the reserves played within the offense."They kept making the extra pass. I'm very proud of this group," he said. "You're up 25, you're up 30, guys in the game are still very unselfish and making the extra pass and trying to find a teammate."
LOOSE BALLS: The win stretched Notre Dame's home win streak to 42 games… Luke Zeller's younger brother Tyler was in attendance. Tyler is a 7-foot freshman at North Carolina and scored 18 points in his first game, but broke his left wrist in the second game and has been sidelined for the season… Harangody damaged the protective plastic on the lower portion of the scorer's table diving to make a save at the end of the first half… Hillesland had the play of the game when he slammed home a missed jumper by Tory Jackson with a one hand midway through the second half.