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By LARRY VAUGHT
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey thinks it will “be fun night and great atmosphere” when the Irish host Kentucky Thursday night in the Big East/SEC Challenge.
“For our players, it’s the game they talked about all summer,” said Brey. “It will be a Big East atmosphere. The atmosphere of Syracuse last year. We have not played in that atmosphere at home this year. I will have to talk to our guys not to get out of character in the crazy atmosphere. We have got too excited before and I will have to address how to handle that, but these guys have played in some great home atmospheres.”
One advantage Notre Dame could have over UK’s freshman-dominated roster is experience. The Irish roster is loaded with veterans, including one sixth-year player. Brey has had his team aiming for a Big East regular-season championship since losing to Xavier in last year’s NCAA Tournament since the Irish returned five starters.
“We have a group that has been in the program, knows how to play. They share the ball,” Brey said. “I hope it (experience) comes into play against Kentucky. That has been a big thing that has helped us consistently over the years. We have stayed old and not had to rely on playing a lot of young guys. If we are going to be successful Thursday our experience and poise are going to have to be good in that department for 40 minutes to beat the talent they put on the floor. And it is talent that is getting better daily.”
Brey watched Kentucky score 60 points in the paint against Long Island-Brooklyn last week and says Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress present major problems for his team.
“A really tough front line (Saint Joseph’s) beat us in New York. We did not have success there. Their shooting percentage in paint is off the chart. Keeping a body on people and not letting them get too deep and keeping then to one (shot) and done will be a challenge,” Brey said. “They are a similar athletic frontline to what see in the Big East every night. The nights that gets to us we usually lose the game in the Big East.”
Kentucky’s backcourt led by freshman Archie Goodwin has impressed him as well.
“I am really impressed with the way Goodwin and the plays he makes and the slashing stuff to the basket,” Brey said. “He’s hard to stop when he turns the corner. He plays with steadiness and great poise. They come off the bench with (Jarrod) Polson, and he is solid. They get (Ryan) Harrow back and I have always liked him.
“Poythress is becoming more comfortable on the perimeter. He was a four man in high school, but he is getting more comfortable as a face-up guy for them. We respect their perimeter play. We have to figure how to keep them for turning the corner and getting in the paint. Their post feeds are lobs to the rim, not something we haven’t seen before because the Big East does that a lot, but we have to challenge the way Noel and Cauley-Stein play. We have got to have bodies on people. They will have some highlight dunks, but thankfully they just count for two points.”
Notre Dame (6-1) is coming off a 92-65 win over Chicago State Monday when it went 9-for-12 from 3-point range in the first 12 minutes, had an 18-0 run and had three players with double-doubles. Junior guard Jerian Grant had 22 points and 11 assists, but career highs, and guard Eric Atkins had 13 points and 11 assists. Center Jack Cooley added 11 points and 11 rebounds and Garrick Sherman contributed 12 points.
“Atkins has been rock solid. He has 17 assists and no turnovers in the last two games. He’s the quarterback and extension of me out there and is keeping it simple,” Brey said. “Same for Scott Martin, a sixth-year player. He’s steady and stirs the drink for us. He’s a great team defender and probably is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a player-coach helping our younger guys.”
Brey said he could play Cooley and Sherman even more together Thursday to counter UK’s size. “They are getting better at spacing so guys can drive,” the Notre Dame coach said. “There have been big strides for Sherman in the last week. We need him to be really good for us.”
Brey says as Notre Dame has started setting better screens, the offense has flowed better and more shots are going in. “We have got to get buckets outside the paint because of their shot blocking,” Brey said. “We hope to get out in transition so we don’t have to play against their shot blockers in the paint.”
Notre Dame hits 37.1 percent from 3-point range and 49 percent overall. The Irish have struggled at the foul line where they are hitting only 63 percent.
“We are going to need to be better (at the foul line),” Brey said. “I am kind of banking on that because our shooting is coming around. We get to the foul line a lot (128 times in seven games). Our big guys draw fouls, we have some drivers. We have got to capitalize better at the foul line to beat a very good team and that’s what we have on Thursday. We don’t foul much. We have been guarding the (3-point) arc and not letting people light us up from the 3-point line. But that will be a challenge Thursday because of the percentages they are shooting, especially inside the arc.”