Games that tip early often have troubled the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, something coach Mike Brey made sure would not occur on Sunday. Well-caffeinated for a 12:05 p.m. tip against South Florida, Brey soon found an outlet for his energy. With the visitors struggling to do anything right and his Irish having rocketed to a 25-10 lead, he burst from the sideline as the Bulls took another timeout. Looking like an outfielder trying to make a 400-foot throw to home plate on the fly, Brey wound up, wildly swung his right arm through the air and tested the threads of his suit coat. “When it’s a noon game, always like to let our fans think, ‘Here we go, baby, gotta wake up,’’ Brey said after a 65-62 Irish win. “I used a lot of energy right there.” Monday was an off day for the Irish, one Brey might have spent part of in the training room icing his shoulder. “It will be sore,” he said. Seeing that emotional whirlwind was far different than the snapshot of Brey eight days earlier when he looked hollow and drained as he dragged himself from a post-game media session following Notre Dame’s lethargic loss to Rutgers. But two home games - and two league wins - can be a terrific tonic for a program that needed a positive push. Here are four other observations that surfaced after the Irish used a good week of work to improve to 17-7 overall, 6-5 in the Big East.
- More of the same remains for the seniors. Captains Luke Harangody and Tory Jackson were too broken up to speak following the Rutgers loss, but Brey figured that knowing his leaders, they would find a way to make it better. They did. Harangody returned to his attacking roots against Cincinnati. He scored a season-high 37 points and looked more like he did as a sophomore when he was a runaway locomotive and won league player of the year honors. He was relentless. He was efficient. And he was unstoppable. Against South Florida, Jackson played like he did late in his freshman season when he earned a spot on the all-rookie team. He refused to be denied on any drive against a number of bigger bodies. He took over Sunday’s second half and scored a season-high 18 points. His game was electric again. Sure would be nice to see more of it. Nobody knows what the rest of the regular season holds, but for the Irish to have a chance, Harangody and Jackson will have to do it again and again and be even better. At home. On the road. Early in games. Late in contests. With the end of their collegiate careers coming quickly, no reason to hold back.
- Time for Notre Dame to have its turn. Teams destined to tread water through the 18-game league schedule sputter and start through January and February. Teams that separate themselves run off wins in bunches. Many of those in the top half of the league have done it. Now has to be Notre Dame’s time. A similar sense of urgency from the Irish, who have not won more than two in a row in league play, carried last week has to continue. No more slip-ups. No more lackluster efforts. No more searching for an identity. Play hard and play well and win, and Notre Dame still can dictate where it plays in post-season. Take a game for granted, and it all slides south.
- Get it done on the road. One common denominator of Brey’s five NCAA tournament teams was success away from home in league play. Notre Dame won five, five, four, three and five conference road games during previous NCAA tournament years. The Irish are 1-4 on the road and have lost three straight in league play. Road wins polish any post-season resume, and four chances remain starting Thursday with Seton Hall. The Pirates once fashioned themselves NCAA tournament material but are on a three-game losing streak. The Hall has to be wondering right now, which leaves the door open for Notre Dame. A veteran team goes into downtown Newark and wrestles this one away. Coming close cannot be an option. Time for that “Road Dawg” attitude, once a staple of Brey’s tourney teams at Notre Dame, to return.
- Home is no longer where the heart is. Sunday’s announced attendance was 8,520, which came as a surprise to some. One Irish player glanced at that number on the final stats sheet, raised his eyebrows and guessed that there might have been 6,000 people in the stands. Not only might that be a stretch, it’s a shame. South Florida arrived the hottest team in the league with a four-game streak that included wins over Georgetown and Pittsburgh, and the fans still didn’t show. That’s an indictment of an apathy that often chokes the program. Irish fans constantly grumble about the non-league schedule, but when it comes to conference play, the attitude seems to be that if it isn’t Connecticut or Marquette or Syracuse or an ESPN game, there’s no reason to go. No sense in worrying about upgrading the non-league slate if area hoops fans treat a chunk of the league schedule as an afterthought. When you see the sea of vacant seats for such a big game, it’s staggering to think Notre Dame once led the nation with 45 consecutive home wins. If the moon’s not full or the stars aren’t all aligned, area fans, and probably most of the same ones who want the non-conference schedule upgraded, can’t find a good excuse to peel themselves from their couches and get to campus. Fans seem to have spent so much time rallying over reasons not to like this team - home schedule, short rotation, bad losses, etc. - that it runs counterproductive to being a factor when it matters - now.