As the Notre Dame basketball team prepares to enter the most grueling Big East schedule that it has ever faced, head coach Mike Brey feels good about where his team stands.
"We're in the position that we need to be in," says Brey.
The Irish will head into conference play with a 9-2 record and a Top 10 national ranking. Notre Dame stretched its winning streak at home to 43 and had a good showing at the Maui Invitational, earning its best non-conference win against Texas before losing in the final to consensus No. 1 North Carolina in its third game in three days.
"I think we maxed out our Maui experience," Brey says. "That's about as good as you're going to get out of us in Maui. We didn't have a whole lot left for those guys the last night and those guys are pretty good."
The only real slip-up came against an underrated Ohio State team in The Hartford Hall of Fame Showcase in Indianapolis, but the Irish showed their experience by pulling out a tough win against Boston University.
"I wish we could have been a little better in Indianapolis, but I give credit to Ohio State, they outplayed us. They're a pretty good basketball team," Brey says. "We were on the ropes against Boston University, a lot of teams in our league have and will blow games like that. I'm glad we found a way to get out of there with a win."
With high expectations entering the season, the Irish knew that they still had plenty of concerns to address before heading to conference play and that is exactly what they did.
With 11 of its top 12 performers coming back from last season's 25-8 squad, Notre Dame is still cognizant of replacing what it lost with the graduation of Rob Kurz.
Kurz was Notre Dame's third-leading scorer behind Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney and was the team's second-leading rebounder last season. But Kurz's biggest contributions were as a team leader and the type of player who could be counted on to do all of the little things.
Brey knew he could not replace Kurz by just plugging in another guy so he has spread Kurz's duties out amongst different players.
Ayers has shown that he is ready to step up and be Notre Dame's third scorer, averaging almost 13 points a game and exploding for 35 against South Dakota, while Zeller and Peoples have been steadying influences off the bench.
The Irish will never be a dominant rebounding team and losing Kurz makes it an even touchier subject, but Harangody, Ayers, Zeller and Zach Hillesland have all increased their rebounding averages to compensate.
Hillesland has unofficially taken over as the dirty work guy for the Irish and is one of four seniors along with McAlarney, Ayers and Zeller that have more than filled the void in leadership.
Notre Dame was also looking for more consistent play out of junior point guard Tory Jackson and Brey began to see evidence of that when the Irish went on a preseason exhibition tour in Ireland. The maturation process has continued throughout the early portion of the schedule as Jackson has been more reliable with the ball.
Jackson did not try to force himself into the role of third scorer, although his average is up more than three points from last season to 11.2, and has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as conference play begins.
With Hillesland, Ayers, Jackson, Zeller and Peoples stepping up as their coach knew they could and Harangody and McAlarney being their dependable selves, Notre Dame has been trying to find that eighth man to fill out its rotation and it appears they have in sophomore Tyrone Nash.
Nash had 19 points and 10 rebounds in 28 minutes combined in the last two games and brings a physical presence similar to that of Kurz. But while Nash appears to be the leading candidate for eighth man heading into conference play, Brey has stressed that the role could fluctuate and sophomore Carleton Scott has looked good in the opportunities that he has had.
Defense and rebounding are issues that will continue to be addressed throughout the year, although Brey has maintained that his squad will not lose its identity as one that can fill it up.
Notre Dame has taken care of its business thus far, but the season begins for real on Wednesday night in Chicago when the Irish open up conference play against DePaul.
"We have so much power on our schedule coming up in our league that will make or break us," says Brey.
He is confident that his team will be ready.
"There's some things we've got to do better, but we'll work on them and we will show up to play," he says.