Back in 1965-66, the Fighting Irish lost eight consecutive games on their way to a 5-21 campaign.
The 2008-09 Irish won’t finish 16 games below .500 like that squad did. But they will match that eight-game losing streak if they can’t contain high-flying, No. 5-ranked Louisville (18-4, 9-1) Thursday night at the Joyce Center.
The game tips off at 7 p.m. ET with Brent Musberger calling the game for ESPN, alongside college basketball luminaries Bob Knight and Digger Phelps.
This is another tall task for the Irish. The Cardinals, coached by Rick Pitino and winners of 10 of their last 11, lead the Big East in scoring defense (60.1), blocked shots (7.5/game) and steals (8.7/game). They are second in field goal percentage defense, thanks in great part to the athleticism and length of players such at 6-foot-6 senior Terrence Williams, 6-foot-8 junior Earl Clark and 6-foot-8 freshman Samardo Samuels.
That front line has played a significant role in squashing opposing offenses en route to a top five ranking and a 5-0 mark in Big East games on the road. This is a nightmarish match-up for the Irish, particularly since they have fallen to 11th in the Big East in shooting percentage at just 41.5 percent.
Irish head coach Mike Brey recently referred to the Williams-Clark-Samuels triumvirate as future NBA first-round draft choices. Williams (13.0 ppg., 9.0 rpg.) is a stat sheet stuffer who also averages five assists and two steals per game.
He is long and lethal, which the Irish witnessed first hand in an 87-73 overtime loss to the Cardinals on Jan. 12. Williams scored 24 points on 10-of-20 shooting while snagging 16 rebounds, handing out eight assists and making three steals.
“Scary…scary talent,” summarized Brey of Williams. “He plays 40 minutes, he’s a coach on the court, he has a great demeanor, he sets the tone…Certainly he’s a strong (Big East) player of the year candidate in my mind. He plays like such a senior veteran who sets the tone.”
Clark, though just a junior, is expected to enter his name in the NBA draft with Williams this year. His numbers mirror Williams’ with a 13.0 scoring average and 8.5 rebounds per game. He also is a shot-blocking presence with a team-leading 37.
Samuels is the baby of the bunch. But he’s made a mark in his freshman season with a 12.3 scoring average and a 56.9 shooting percentage from the field while grabbing 5.2 rebounds per game.
None of the big three Cardinals is a shot-blocker per se in the mold of Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet. But collectively, they make life difficult for opposing shooters, who are connecting on just 38.4 percent of their shots. Clark (37 blocked shots), Samuels (32), Williams (20) and 6-foot-10 freshman Terrence Jennings (31) give the Cardinals four players with an offense-altering presence in the paint.
The Cardinal backcourt can be a bit erratic at times, particularly 6-foot-1 junior Edgar Sosa, who is shooting just 36.4 percent from the field and a frigid 27.5 percent from three-point range. But both Sosa and 6-foot-1 junior Jerry Smith toss in 7.5 points per game.
Smith is shooting 86.7 percent from the free-throw line in Big East play while converting 40.8 percent of his three-point shots. Smith exploded for 21 points in a victory over St. John’s earlier this week.
A freshman, sophomore and senior come off the bench to assist the Louisville cause: Jennings (3.4 ppg.), 6-foot-1 Preston Knowles (5.5 ppg.) and 5-foot-10 Andre McGee (4.7). Jennings’ playing time has been increasing as his field-goal percentage (57.8) and shot-blocking prowess (1.7 per game) continue to rise.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame has lost its magic at home after reeling off 45 straight victories. Connecticut and Marquette defeated the Irish in back-to-back games at the Joyce in late January, and the Irish haven’t won a game since Jan. 10 at home against Seton Hall.
Louisville is Notre Dame’s 10th game against a ranked opponent this season. The Irish are just 2-7 with a Nov. 25 victory over Texas in Maui and a Jan. 5 win over Georgetown at the Joyce Center marking the only two conquests in the bunch.
The Irish are clinging to faint NCAA tournament hopes, although a string of victories in upcoming weeks, coupled with high strength-of-schedule quotient, would thrust Notre Dame back into NCAA tournament talk.
The Irish remain strong at the free-throw line (81.3 percent, 1st in the Big East) and in the assist-to-turnover ratio (1st in the conference), two important statistics that could serve them well during this critical phase of the season.
Luke Harangody will try to bounce back from an uncharacteristic performance at UCLA where he scored just five points and grabbed one rebound. It was the lowest output in either category by Harangody since the final game of his freshman season against Winthrop in the first round of the NCAA tournament when he scored four points and grabbed one rebound.
Harangody’s streak of 50 straight games scoring in double figures came to a halt against the Bruins. Another snapped streak was Tory Jackson’s 74 straight starting assignments. He is expected back in the starting lineup tonight against the Cardinals.
Despite the month-long struggle to notch a victory, it’s difficult to envision this veteran-laden Irish squad simply throwing in the towel. This group still has some magic in it, and with an ESPN broadcast featuring the Musberger-Knight-Phelps team, the suspicion here is that the Irish will rise to the occasion, led by the familiar Harangody-Kyle McAlarney inside-outside punch.
Brey said recently that the Irish might need some help to end this streak. Maybe the Cardinals will falter at the free-throw line where they rank just 10th in the Big East at 67.1 percent.
Notre Dame could use a break…or three.
Pointspread: Louisville by 3
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 75, Louisville 72
Season record: 15-7 overall; 5-10 vs. points
But Mike Brey isn’t looking at anything other than today’s practice as it relates to Thursday’s home clash with No. 5-ranked Louisville.
Notre Dame can’t afford to look at anything other than the short term.
“There’s no question it has to be a big run,” said Brey Tuesday when asked about what lies ahead for the Irish over the next few weeks. “But right now, that’s the last thing we’re discussing. Our guys are pretty realistic about day-to-day, and trying to do some things that we haven’t done in a game in a month.
“I’d be more equipped to talk about that in March when there’s more certainty to everything that is out there. We certainly know it’s a steep climb with a lot of work to do yet. There are opportunities, and people remember how you finish.”
The Irish are focused solely on beating Louisville, much like they were in December of 2006 when they knocked off No. 4-ranked Alabama at a time when they were searching for their confidence.
That 99-85 victory over the Crimson Tide signaled the return of the Irish, who would go on to win 49 games overall and 25 Big East games in a two-year span.
“I would almost compare this game to the Alabama game from a couple of years ago when that team really didn’t know how good they were and didn’t know where they were going,” Brey said.
“They were searching for themselves and had a good win over a highly-ranked team. That’s the climate we’re in: to fight and try to get (a win).”
The Irish also have referenced the 2005-06 season when they started out a woeful 1-8 in the Big East before winning five of their last seven. That squad came close to making it six out of seven, but fell to Connecticut on the road by a point. Notre Dame’s current seniors were freshmen back then.
“The one thing that group did was they hung in there, and they were as frustrated as this group,” Brey said. “They came every day and were open to us helping them to try to put them in a position to get on a bit of a run.
“These current seniors have used (the 2005-06 team) as a reference point. They remember that experience of having a kick down the stretch to have some momentum and earn a post-season (NIT) bid.
“I feel every bit as good about our seniors in this group as I did with that group. You hang in and you keep scratching. You need a few things to break your way, too. Sometimes you can’t make every break when you’ve been smacked as much as we have. People help you a little bit, and that probably happened at times with that team.”
In other words, the Irish could use the Cardinals—winners of 10 of their last 11, including an 87-73 overtime victory over Notre Dame on Jan. 12—to have an off shooting night or a cold streak from the free-throw line.
Yet Brey wasn’t looking for outside help Sunday when his squad returned to the practice floor following a dismal 89-63 loss at UCLA in which the Irish barely competed. The Bruins repeatedly beat the Irish up and down the court last Saturday, which prompted a competitive practice session when they returned from Los Angeles.
“(Sunday’s practice) wasn’t an X’s and O’s strategy day,” Brey said. “We didn’t talk a whole lot. It was more about digging in, going after it five-on-five, bodies on people, and confrontations in the paint. We needed to compete and battle.”
The only goal at the present time is to win Thursday night to keep their hopes alive.
“You’ve got to continue to give hope while working on things you’ve got to work on,” Brey said. “You don’t spend much time talking about trying to get there. We’ll talk about where we are and what our chances are in March.
“Right now, it’s more day-to-day. What do we have to do to get better? What do we have to do better as individuals? What more we can get out of individuals? How can we help them and how can we help each other?
“When you have older guys who get it, it’s not like you’ve got to explain everything to them. Yet by Thursday you’ve got to be loose and play. You’re back on your home court with a different atmosphere than before. The last time we were at this home court, we had streaks and all of those things.”
One in a row would be just fine.
You see, Notre Dame is a cerebral university, and the makeup of its athletic teams reflect it. That’s not to say that great athletes aren’t smart or cerebral. But a higher being generally rations out talents on an equal basis. It’s simply rare that an athlete with a 1,500 SAT score also runs a 4.3 40-yard dash.
Notre Dame’s shortage of athleticism compared to schools such as Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut, Marquette, Pittsburgh and UCLA has been in plain view over the last month. To be sure, Notre Dame’s treasured chemistry also went out the window at about the same time. But there’s no doubt the Irish have been trailing the footrace during their current seven-game losing streak.
“I think you’re always analyzing who you are in this league and what we play against,” said Brey at his Tuesday press teleconference. “We had a pretty darn good rhythm the two previous years, but not so much this year. We’ve always focused on trying to be a little quicker and trying to be a little faster.”
Take a stroll out of the Joyce Center, where the basketball team’s coaching staff is housed, over to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex where head football coach Charlie Weis and his program resides.
While the football program has always been able to attract some of the premier talent in the country, landing the premier athletes on a consistent basis has been an issue. Clearly, Notre Dame football has difficulty signing the quality and quantity of athletes that rule conferences like the SEC.
“I would think that’s probably a theme across the board at our university,” said Brey of Notre Dame’s pursuit of better athletes. “You hear that coming out of every coach’s (mouth). It’s something that’s maybe been a little more difficult here than other places.”
Brey tries to compensate for a lack of athleticism with three-point shooters. But 6-foot-5 guards with athleticism often overwhelm players such as 6-foot-1 Kyle McAlarney and 5-foot-11 Tory Jackson.
Length combined with athleticism is difficult to come by at Notre Dame. More often than not, Orlando Woolridge, LaPhonso Ellis, Torian Jones and Russell Carter have been the exceptions to the rule.
“Joey Brooks adds some of that,” said Brey of the 6-foot-5 small forward from Houston who will be arriving this summer. “We have a junior guard visiting on Sunday from Baltimore who would add to that.
“It’s a fine line because we’ve had a style of play, for the most part, that’s been pretty successful. I don’t know if all of a sudden we’re going to look like some of these guys in two years, and I don’t know if we should. But we certainly can add to the dimension.”
If the Irish were in the Big Ten, they likely would be an upper-echelon basketball program. But the current state of the Big East has the Irish flailing about in the bottom one-quarter of the league.
Thursday’s opponent at the Joyce Center—Louisville—epitomizes the hurdle facing the Irish.
“You’ve got three guys on the frontline (Thursday night) that are probably first-round picks,” said Brey in reference to the Cardinals’ Earl Clark, Terrence Williams and Samardo Samuels. “You’ve got a lot of big dudes and speed.
“It is the ultimate high cycle of the league that we’ve hit, and it’s been hard for us to handle. But we can always try and get some guys who can help us against the bouncy, athletic guys that keep coming at you.”
There doesn’t appear to be a respite in sight for the Irish.
“In this league, more than any other league, it’s just not even close, and I don’t see it changing,” said Brey of the athleticism in the Big East. “Some pros cycle out. New pros come in, and sometimes when they’re 17- or 18-year-old pros, it helps it.
“Like anyone coaching (at Notre Dame), getting guys that can change ends better is always something you’re looking for.”