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Men’s Basketball: Big Blue battles the Blue and Gold

Mike Monaco | Thursday, November 29, 2012

In a battle of programs with opposite philosophies, the Irish will try to defeat No. 8 Kentucky, the reigning national champions, on Thursday in a marquee matchup in the SEC/Big East Challenge at Purcell Pavilion.

“I think for a lot of people, it’s our season-opener,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I think our fans have looked at it [that way]. … I think it’s going to be a great night. It will be a great atmosphere in our building. I think [it will be] two very good teams going at it early in the season. But I think for our players, it’s the one they have talked about all summer.”

Kentucky coach John Calipari said he is interested to see how the Wildcats respond to the presumably raucous environment. Kentucky opened the season with two games at neutral sites – a 72-69 win over Maryland on Nov. 9 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a 75-68 loss to Duke on Nov. 13 in Atlanta – before hosting its next three tilts in Rupp Arena.

“It wasn’t [a road game],” Calipari said of the matchup with the Terrapins. “[Maryland] probably had 60 percent of the fans. We still had 40 [percent]. We may have 40 people in the building here [on Thursday]. This will be a new experience for them. I will be anxious to see how they respond.”

Though the teams both entered the season with high expectations and spots in the preseason rankings, the programs have been constructed in divergent ways. Notre Dame (6-1) features experienced upperclassmen while the Wildcats (4-1) deploy a seemingly endless stock of blue-chip freshmen.

Kentucky had four underclassmen drafted in the first round of June’s NBA Draft but reloaded with the second-ranked recruiting class in the nation, according to ESPN. Brey said the Irish, meanwhile, focus on developing their youngsters into upperclassmen.

“We’re not going to get as many of the one-and-done guys,” Brey said. “It’s just a different world. … So we get four and a lot of times I like to make them five-year guys. And how about this? We made [graduate student] forward Scott Martin a six-year guy.”

The Irish, who are riding a four-game winning streak, are hoping that experience pays off Thursday. Senior forward Jack Cooley, senior center Garrick Sherman and junior guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant have all averaged double-digit points for Notre Dame while Martin has averaged eight points and eight rebounds a game.

“I hope [our experience] comes into play,” Brey said. “That’s been a big thing that has helped us here consistently over the years, that we’ve stayed old. … Certainly if we’re going to be successful on Thursday night our experience and our poise are going to have to play out and we’re going to have to be really good in that department for close to 40 minutes to beat the talent that they put on the floor.”

Wildcats freshman guard Archie Goodwin, the 15th overall player in the class of 2012 according to ESPN, and freshman forward Alex Poythress, the 13th overall incoming freshman, lead Kentucky in scoring with 19 points and 18.4 points per game, respectively.

“I’m really impressed with Goodwin, with the plays that he makes and the slashing stuff to the bucket,” Brey said. “It’s really hard to stop him when he turns the corner. Very impressed. He plays with a steadiness and a great poise.”

The Irish will also face a tough task in defending a trio of athletic Kentucky big men. Freshman forwards Nerlens Noel, the top overall recruit in the nation, and Willie Cauley-Stein team with sweet-shooting sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer to form a frontline that could give the Irish trouble similar to what it faced against Saint Joseph’s on Nov. 16 in Brooklyn, N.Y. The Irish lost 79-70 in overtime to the Hawks, who had their own frontcourt trio combine for 47 points and 31 rebounds.

“A really tough frontline beat us in New York: Saint Joe’s’ old athletic frontline,” Brey said. “So we did not have success there.

“[Kentucky’s] shooting percentages in the paint are off the charts. Keeping a body on people, not letting them get too deep, keeping them to one [shot] and done will be the ultimate challenge. But it’s a similar preparation, an athletic frontline, to what we see in the Big East a lot of nights. We have to neutralize these bouncy, athletic, long frontlines. The nights we do it we’re able to get out with a win.”

To counter the shot-blocking prowess of Noel and Cauley-Stein, Brey said the Irish will need to continue to shoot the ball proficiently from outside the paint. Notre Dame made 12-of-22 three-pointers in Monday’s 92-65 victory over Chicago State.

“I think we are going to have to get some buckets outside the paint because of their shot-blocking,” Brey said. “So we’re going to have to make some shots. Whether it is threes or mid-range stuff, we’re going to have to stop and make some stuff.”

Notre Dame squares off with Kentucky on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Purcell Pavilion. The game will be televised on ESPN2.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu