Notre Dame best bet from area to make NCAA run

SHARE Notre Dame best bet from area to make NCAA run
SHARE Notre Dame best bet from area to make NCAA run

BY DAN McGRATH

For the Sun-Times

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — College basketball has been a stealth sport locally since Illinois’ heady run to the Final Four in 2005.

It’s especially true this season, with the turnover in Bears leadership eclipsing anything else that has happened anywhere, including the turnover in the Illinois statehouse.

Notre Dame, though, seems intent on calling attention to itself with flashy performances such as its 75-70 dispatch Saturday of Miami, which was three days removed from a 16-point humbling of Duke at Duke.

The Irish are 17-2 overall, 5-1 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and likely to crack the top 10 in the rankings this week.

‘‘Man, am I proud of my team,’’ coach Mike Brey said. ‘‘What a special group we have.’’

Brey isn’t one to toot his own horn, but he’s the man responsible for blending myriad talents. After an uncharacteristically tepid first half, during which Notre Dame’s trusty shooting touch went missing, Brey deployed a smaller lineup that spaced the floor and created driving lanes for senior guard Jerian Grant, whose 23 points came on 8-for-10 shooting. He also had eight assists.

‘‘When a guy like Grant is feeling it, none of our guys could stop it,’’ Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. ‘‘They’re hard to guard when they’re shooting it well.’’

The Irish missed 14 of their first 16 three-pointers but made seven of their last 12, including four in a row during a 15-2 burst that erased a 12-point deficit.

‘‘You give up rebounding and defense when you go small, but we don’t rebound anyway, so why not try it?’’ Brey said.

Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame’s most reliable three-point shooter, never did find his stroke and shot 2-for-8, but he took down 11 rebounds and anchored the Irish’s baseline defense.

Junior Zach Auguste, Notre Dame’s most accomplished big man, was back with the team after missing the game Wednesday at Georgia Tech because of incomplete course work. Auguste was barely noticed in nine minutes against Miami, but his formidable frontcourt presence is another reason the Irish remain the best hope in the area to play deep

into March.

Northwestern? Much was made of the roster upgrade coach Chris Collins achieved with his first recruiting class, and the Wildcats piled up some early victories against a forgiving schedule. But the Big Ten is a men’s league, and freshmen have to earn their way. Collins continues to coach ’em up, but it’s telling that five of NU’s top seven contributors are Bill Carmody holdovers.

Illinois? Despite losing top scorer Rayvonte Rice to a wrist injury, the Illini remain a dangerous perimeter team when the shots are falling. But Illinois is lacking a credible offensive presence inside, and that’s a liability in a league where most games are decided by what takes place around the basket.

Loyola? The Ramblers are staging a quiet renaissance in

Year 2 of Missouri Valley membership. They surpassed their victory total of last season (10) before January and look less overmatched in the most underrated conference in the country. But it’s at best a two-bid league, and that means Wichita State and Northern Iowa — barring something unforeseen in the Valley tournament.

Anybody remember DePaul? The Big East has been like a stretch in prison for the Blue Demons, who are 33-130 (.246) in their 10th year of membership. Despite a six-game December losing streak that offset a 7-1 start, a breakthrough seemed possible when DePaul opened Big East play with three victories in four games.

Sure, it’s early, but first place was theirs for the taking when inconsistency struck in the form of five consecutive empty possessions late in the second half against Georgetown, helping the Hoyas escape with a victory last week at Allstate Arena.

DePaul doesn’t know how to win; Notre Dame does. Thus, the Irish will have a reason to gather and see what awaits them come Selection Sunday.

‘‘Our guys never get down; they never get discouraged,’’ Brey said. ‘‘They always believe they’ll figure out a way to win. They have a chance to be a special team.’’

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