Atkins will be the key for Irish against #8 Kentucky - Michael Hickey
Mike Brey's squad will look to avenge their loss two years ago to the Wildcats on Thursday night at the Purcell Pavilion as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge. Tip off will be at 7 pm EST and broadcast on ESPN2.
When it comes to building a basketball program, Notre Dame's Mike Brey and Kentucky's John Calipari are a little...different. Ok they are a lot different. Probably as far on opposite ends of the spectrum as you can get.
Brey is hellbent on a methodical approach to building his players throughout their four or five years at Notre Dame, finding a cohesiveness and maturity in his bunch that is unique from most of the rest of the college basketball world and translates to on-court success. Conversely, Calipari loads up on out-of-this-world talent year after year and tries to corral it into something resembling an offense by the time March rolls around, and his achievements are undeniable (although eventually vacated). These two very different basketball teams will meet at Notre Dame on Thursday night in a battle of not just non-conference opponents but of coaching philosophies.
When the #8 Wildcats (4-1) trot out their lineup chock full of former McDonald's All-Americans, the Irish (6-1) will need to control the tempo and value their possessions if they are to win this game, something their experience should give them a leg up on. Compared to a Kentucky team that starts one senior, one sophomore, and three freshmen, Notre Dame has a more balanced lineup, starting two sophomores, a junior, and two seniors, 4 of whom have more starts than anyone on Kentucky's roster.
As we well know, the Irish run at a slower pace offensively than most teams and are typically more disciplined on defense, qualities which are sure to get a younger team out of their rhythm. Despite the athletic disadvantages that will be obvious in this game early and often, a Notre Dame squad that makes its living slogging out tough games can win an ugly one against a group of Wildcats that are just beginning to learn how to tough anything out on the basketball court.
Despite a preseason ranking at number 3 in the country, Kentucky has had their struggles early on, squeezing past Maryland in their first game, losing against Duke, and pulling away late after trailing in the second half to Morehead State. They dominated thoroughly outmatched opponents in their other two wins. The Wildcats are ultra-efficient on the offensive end, coming in at first in the nation in field goal percentage (56%!) but have been flat terrible on the boards and turning the ball over, where they rank near the bottom of the country.
Notre Dame should be undefeated, losing embarrassingly against St. Joseph's in Brooklyn after fumbling away an eight-point lead with three minutes left and failing time and again to convert open looks in overtime. The Irish have won relatively comfortably in their other five games against unimpressive competition, and will be unranked until they can get a big win under their belts. As a team, they are near the top of the country in assists (4th in assists per game and 2nd in total assists) and reasonably efficient on offense (28th in FG% and eFG%), but have been bad at the free throw line (63%) and have had their own turnover problems (12 per game).
The Wildcats, who recently welcomed back former phenom guard Ryan Harrow from illness and a family-related absence, now have a rotation of eight guys who are expected to get significant minutes. Superstar guard Archie Goodwin, who at 6'5" is a tough matchup for anyone in the country, will key the Kentucky offense as its leading scorer (19 PPG) and assist man (4.4 APG), while Nerlens Noel (who was interestingly not a McDonald's All-American despite being a top two recruit due to ineligibility) will look to make life tough for the Irish in the paint on both ends (12.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.6 BPG). Alex Poythress, the third of their freshmen phenom starters, has topped 20 points in each of Kentucky's last four games.
Starting point guard and Wright State transfer Julius Mays is more of a facilitator and unlike the Calipari point guards we are used to (Derrick Rose, Brandon Knight, Marquis Teague). He has struggled in Kentucky's tougher games against Maryland (7 pts, 3-10) and Duke (7 pts, 2-8, 4 TOs), and it's likely only a matter of time until Harrow takes his place in the starting lineup. It will be interesting to see how Calipari uses his guards against the Irish given Mays' struggles and Harrow's potential fitness issues.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, relies on a balanced scoring attack, with Jack Cooley on the inside (14.3 PPG) and Jerian Grant (13 PPG) and Eric Atkins (10.3 PPG) in the backcourt. The Irish need contributions from all 7 of their regulars to compete, including Scott Martin (8.2 PPG), Pat Connaughton (8 PPG), and Garrick Sherman (11 PPG) and Cam Biedscheid (7.7 PPG) off the bench.
It will be key for Cooley to stay out of foul trouble, an area he has struggled in thus far this season. However, in my opinion, Atkins is the biggest key to an Irish victory, as he has been the straw that stirs the drink for this offense (6.7 APG), and an active game from him can wear out a vulnerable Wildcats backcourt. If Atkins (and the rest of the Irish backcourt) can capitalize on a turnover-prone offense (Calipari-led teams are consistently some of the worst in the nation), and the frontcourt can keep Kentucky off the offensive boards, the Irish have a very good shot of winning this one at home.
Stakes are pretty high for the Irish, as this would rate of one of their best non-conference wins in quite some time and would be a valuable item on their NCAA tourney resume come March.
It's a long way until January 7th, so you need something to do until then. Nothing better than Irish basketball to keep you entertained! Tune into ESPN2 Thursday at 7 pm (est) and join our game thread at OFD for what should be a great game.