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Men’s Basketball: Identity theft

Mike Monaco | Friday, March 1, 2013

After stumbling to their third loss in four games – a 63-47 demolition by Georgetown on Jan. 21 – No. 21 Notre Dame was a team without an identity.

Nearly six weeks later, new-look Notre Dame (22-6, 10-5 Big East) has reeled off seven wins in its last nine games heading into Saturday’s pivotal conference matchup with No. 22 Marquette at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

Irish coach Mike Brey announced Thursday on his radio show that graduate student forward Scott Martin, who has missed the last nine games with knee soreness, will be shut down for the remainder of the season.

Martin, who hasn’t played since that Jan. 21 thrashing by the Hoyas, a game that seemingly thrust Notre Dame into the middle of a congested conference. Yet after a pair of physically dominant victories – a 51-42 win over Pittsburgh on Feb. 18 and Sunday’s 62-41 beat down of Cincinnati – the Irish have transformed into a bruising, defensive squad.

“Maybe we’re finding our identity here on that defensive end of the floor and rebounding the basketball,” Irish coach Mike Brey said after Sunday’s win.

The redefined Irish will need to continue that defensive dominance, especially on the interior, when they square off with the Golden Eagles (20-7, 11-4). Marquette downed No. 12 Syracuse 74-71 on Monday, as junior forward Davante Gardner powered the Golden Eagles with a career-high 26 points to go along with eight rebounds off the bench. With the victory, Marquette extended its home winning streak to 24 games.

“We know we have the ultimate challenge playing Marquette in their building with a 24-game home win streak, and Senior Day and all the above,” Brey said during a teleconference Thursday. “This nucleus has loved big challenges like this, especially on the road, and they’ve played well in a number of them so we’re excited about that challenge Saturday.”

Marquette, after besting the Orange, catapulted into sole possession of second place in the Big East, one game behind league-leading Georgetown. With three games remaining in the regular season, Notre Dame is currently tied for fourth place with the Orange, two games back of the Hoyas and one game behind  the Golden Eagles.

Brey said Sunday it’s amazing to consider Notre Dame is now fighting for a double-bye in the Big East tournament and a league title after uncertainty engulfed the Irish when Martin was ruled out indefinitely. 

The transformation has been highlighted by a new identity of defense and rebounding. Cincinnati’s 41 points on Sunday were the fewest ever scored by an Irish opponent in Big East play. The previous low of 42 points came against Pittsburgh on Feb. 18.

Senior forward Tom Knight has replaced the perimeter-oriented Martin in the starting lineup and, as a result, the Irish have played more ‘three-around-two’ – two true post players surrounded by three men on the perimeter. 

Senior center Garrick Sherman has worked his way back into the rotation off the bench and freshman forward Zach Auguste has emerged as a high-energy force rebounding and defending. Between Knight, Sherman, Auguste and senior forward and Naismith Player of the Year candidate Jack Cooley, Notre Dame has a four-pronged stable of big men that prides itself on toughness.

“It is interesting,” Brey said Sunday of the new identity. “It is easy to say that when we are playing four big guys. When your four-man is more of a step out guy and not the physical banger, you’re going to be a little limited with how physical you can be. But we’ve got four big guys that can really lay the wood to people on screens and block outs. If one fouls out? No problem. … All four of them we’re really good [Sunday].”

The results of the new approach have been palpable. In their past two games, Notre Dame has outrebounded the opposition 83-52 and held those two squads to 33-for-100 shooting from the field. The 6-foot-8, 290-pound Gardner, meanwhile, was 7-for-7 from the field against the Orange and drilled 12 of his 13 free throws.

The Irish tip off against the Golden Eagles on Saturday at 2 p.m. at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee.

Contact Mike Monaco at jmonaco@nd.edu