Tuesday night's eleven-point win over South Florida would have been a minor footnote for many of Mike Brey's more experienced teams. A home game against a program typically near the bottom of the Big East standings? No problem. But for a young Irish team playing as the favorite for the first time during league play - with winter break creating a tepid, Leprechaun Legion-less atmosphere - the victory over the Bulls was another positive step in a very surprising few weeks of basketball.
Stan Heath's Bulls were 2-1in the Big East and coming off a road win at Villanova and didn't go away quietly, continually closing the gap to two or three points, but they could never pull even or ahead. After grinding things out for most of the game, Jerian Grant, Jack Cooley and Scott Martin put on a 14-0 run that was only stopped by a pair of technical free throws after a Cooley technical. Why was there a Cooley technical, you ask? Because the big man threw down a monster dunk on Augustus Gilchrist, then proceeded to stare down his foe.
The offense from this game came almost exclusively from that trio, each contributing in their own way. For Martin, it was his best shooting game of the season, sticking inside the arc and knocking down a variety of jumpers. (Martin also had 13 rebounds and played 39 minutes.) Grant was all over the place in a good way, collecting a few and-one layups and knocking down his soon-to-be-trademarked step-back, pull-up threes*. Cooley was Cooley, exploding in the second half after a quiet opening frame, finishing around the rim and essentially ending the game before the final media timeout with his thunderous dunk.
* Jerian Grant has quickly become one of my favorite players to watch. The guy is absolutely fearless, and as capable of squeezing his way to the rim as he is of pulling his defender out and dropping a jumper on them. And he's a redshirt freshman. I don't want to get crazy and declare that Grant's swag is phenomenal, but we're getting awfully close to that announcement.
The rest of the team handled the little stuff. Atkins played nearly the entire game again after 50 minutes in Louisville, controlling the game despite not scoring a point. Alex Dragicevich got off a rough streak from behind the arc (0-9 against Cincy and Louisville), making a three, getting to the rim a couple of times and dropping four dimes. Connaughton was great off the bench for a spurt early, knocking down a three and scoring a layup out of a timeout just before the half, while Tom Knight came in and helped Cooley out with some nice defense inside. As a whole, it was a very Brey-like offensive performance, with 16 assists on 24 field goals.
But perhaps what is different about this team - and perhaps indicative of the direction this program is going - is the defense being played. Notre Dame's kryptonite in so many games has been the length and athleticism of the opposition suffocating shooters. Now it's the Irish able to defend the wing, aided by Grant, Connaughton and Drago all having almost freakishly long arms. On Tuesday night, USF shot 38% from the field and 1-of-13 from three. The recruiting class coming in next year also has some impressive, hopefully foretelling an evolution of the Irish program into one that runs a beautiful offense while also applying pressure on the other end of the floor.
As fun as the opening to Big East play has been - if the Big East Tournament started today, the Irish would, insanely, be one of the top four seeds, along with Syracuse, Cincinnati (!) and Seton Hall (!!) - things are about to get considerably more difficult. Through the end of this month, Notre Dame plays the defending champion UConn Huskies, at Rutgers (always a tough place to play, and the Knights are actually good this year), against the number one ranked Syracuse Orange (a freakishly deep, athletic squad), at 15-2 Seton Hall, at the defending champs again and finally at home against a ranked Marquette squad. How many wins are you looking for in that group? One? Two? If the Irish can somehow get to February .500 in league play, it will be another twist in a season that's already proven to be quite surprising.
UConn ended Notre Dame's last lengthy home win streak, and they'll be looking to do it again early on Saturday. ESPN2, 11am ET. It'll be a fun test as a wild and wacky Big East season rolls on.