PISCATAWAY, N.J. - A two-year tour through the Southeastern Conference readied Notre Dame senior guard Ben Hansbrough for road life in the Big East. Handling the circus of Connecticut’s XL Center was doable after playing Kentucky in crazy Rupp Arena. South Florida’s Sun Dome was similar in size and scene to Florida’s O’Connell Center. There was no reason to fear Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati after listening to “Rocky Top” at Tennessee and Villanova’s cavernous Wachovia Center would seem a bandbox after the SEC tournament in the Georgia Dome. But as the Irish men’s basketball team moves deeper through the league road schedule, Hansbrough has looked more like a rookie than the calm and cool and collected veteran necessary for Notre Dame to succeed. Hansbrough’s road woes bottomed out during Wednesday’s 18-point loss at No. 3 Villanova. In 19 minutes, his fewest in a league game this season, Hansbrough offered seven points, two assists and one rebound. He took a season-low three shots, committed three turnovers and collected three fouls in a three-minute cameo in the second half before fouling out. “You’re not going to get a lot of calls; it’s not like you’re playing at home,” Hansbrough said. “I kind of let my team down making a couple stupid plays.” Hansbrough has fouled out twice this season - both in league games and both away from northern Indiana. “I feel for him because he hasn’t been as good on the road,” said coach Mike Brey. “I think he’s finding that the Big East is very, very different on the road and some of the teams he’s played against.” Hansbrough winced as if splashed with ice water when he learned of Brey’s comments. “I think they’re (road games in the Big East and the SEC) kind of similar, actually,” Hansbrough said. The numbers seem to back Brey. Averaging 11.4 points per game this season, Hansbrough has hit for only 8.0 in the first four Irish road games - three of those losses. Since getting 14 points at Connecticut in the road opener, Hansbrough has scored three, eight and seven points his last three road games. Shooting 48 percent from the floor, 44 percent from 3 and 71.1 percent from the foul line overall, Hansbrough has seen those numbers dip to 37, 33 and 66 in conference road games. Brey’s message to Hansbrough in the two days after the Villanova game was one that the Mississippi State transfer often has heard from him - just relax and don’t be wound so tight that he can’t compete. The way Hansbrough started against Villanova, Brey figured his shooting guard was set for a big night. He hit the game’s first shot - a 3-pointer. He found Tim Abromaitis down the baseline for a dunk. He then gathered two fouls in less than four minutes. As quickly as he announced his arrival, Hansbrough was on the bench saddled with foul trouble. “He wants it so much,” Brey said. “We need for him to bounce back.” Hansbrough will have to be at his best Saturday when Notre Dame wraps up January and a two-game league road swing at Rutgers. Nothing that Hansbrough thought he knew about life on the road in the Big East may compare to his first to the Louis Brown Athletic Center, affectionately known around town as the “RAC.” Rutgers may be down. The coach, Fred Hill, may be on his way out, but the RAC remains one of the league’s most unforgiving places to play. An Irish team that had its pride wounded the other night is just what the Knights’ faithful want. “It’s the RAC; they’re all on you, right on top of you,” said Irish senior guard Tory Jackson. “(Hansbrough’s) got to put (the Villanova) game behind him, ’cause they’re even worse over there.” Home or away, Notre Dame needs to get moving in the right direction as February nears. The next five league games are there for the taking. But will the Irish seize the opportunity or, like last season, let it slip away? “We’ve got to bounce back,” Hansbrough said. “We need to get on a little hot streak here and I think we’re going to do that.” A hot night from No. 23 would be a solid step.
Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough (23) gets fouled by Cedirc Latimer in Monday's game against Saint Francis.
Tribune Photo/SANTIAGO FLORES