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Men’s Basketball: Freedom fighters

Eric Prister | Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Freedom Hall has not been kind to the No. 23 Irish, who have lost their last 10 games at the Louisville, Ky. arena.

Notre Dame will try to break that streak while keeping alive an eight-game win streak to start the season as the face No. 17 Kentucky in the DIRECTV SEC/Big East Invitational tonight.

“I feel like we’ve left games on the table there, even though we’ve played pretty well there against good teams,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “It’s not like it’s going to be foreign territory.”

Kentucky and Notre Dame will meet for the 60th time, and while Kentucky holds a 41-18 advantage in the series, the Irish won the last meeting during the 2009 NIT.

“It’s a great night of basketball,” Brey said. “When [Wildcats coach John Calipari] got the job, he talked about starting the series again, and our fans can relate to going and playing Kentucky every year. It’s not a good game annually for us, but it’s a good thing to rotate in and out of. Obviously the series is a little one-sided, but we won the last one, and it’s a great challenge facing a great program.”

Notre Dame has started the season 8-0 for the first time in Brey’s tenure as coach, due in large part to their improvement on the boards this season. The Irish have out-rebounded every opponent so far this season, and currently rank fifth in the NCAA in rebound margin at plus-12.4.

“I think that’s something we’ve been really pleased with,” Brey said. “It’s been a nucleus of guys that learned how to defend and rebound last year, and pushed to get an NCAA tournament bid, and they’ve continued that this year. Our size helps us, but it’s kind of been a team mentality rebounding.”

A big part of their improved rebounding has been senior Carleton Scott, who leads the Irish with 7.8 boards per game. Scott recorded two double-doubles in the three-game Old Spice Classic for the Irish, and was named to the all-tournament team.

“I just didn’t want him thinking, and I didn’t want to talk publically about him doing more, because I didn’t want him to get outside of our offense,” Brey said. “I think he’s learned to keep it very simple in the context of things, and he’s done a really good job of rebounding and blocking shots.”

Senior Scott Martin has also started to contribute for the Irish. Martin, who missed the 2008-09 campaign as a transfer before missing last year with a knee injury, struggled to start the season, but recorded a season-high seven rebounds against Wisconsin and a season-high 15 points in Notre Dame’s last game against Indiana State.

“I think it’s probably just reps and playing time,” Brey said. “When you haven’t played in two years, I think it’s a confidence thing. Just getting to play and getting in game situations was key, and I want to just keep him confident, because I think he’s feeling good about his role on the team.”

Even though Big East season does not start for three weeks, Brey thinks that this game will be a good test for the Irish, and a good trial run for the type of teams they will face once conference play rolls around.

“I told the guys ‘Here comes a Big East week,'” Brey said. “It’s a Big East kind of preparation, with speed coming into our lane, and we talk about trying to survive and thrive in the Big East. There are a lot of guys that can get to the lane off the dribble, and that’s certainly John [Calipari]’s philosophy. So, for these veteran guys in our program, it’s very similar. It’s going to be a great test for us in a road atmosphere.”

Notre Dame tips off against Kentucky at 9:30 p.m. tonight before returning home to face Gonzaga on Saturday.