Mike Brey likes the mindset of his team this March, following their victory in the opening round of the Big East tournament over Rutgers (15-16, 5-13).
Said Brey, "I liked the maturity, the poise; we never panicked. We really played like men tonight, and I hope we can build on that against Marquette."
After jumping out to an impressive 14-point lead at halftime, the Irish faced a second half Rutgers team that played with a lot more edge and aggressiveness on the offensive end. Austin Johnson in particular really left it all out there, as he scored 15 of his 18 in the second half with an impressive low post game. Point guard Myles Mack picked it up as well after really struggling in the first half, finishing with 18 points of his own. They helped Rutgers fight their way back into it, closing in by as few as five points.
But the Irish, led by Pat Connaughton (20 pts, 6-8 3pt), withstood every blow the Scarlet Knights threw at them in the second half. The scoring punch came from pretty surprising sources, as Connaughton and Tom Knight (18 pts, 9 rebs) led the way, including some clutch buckets in the second half. Those two in particular allowed Notre Dame to put in a nice offensive performance despite struggles from All-Big East teammates Jerian Grant (11 pts, 3-10) and Jack Cooley (2 pts, 1-6).
Still, the second half defense was a major letdown, especially compared to their stinginess in the first half. If the Irish are to advance past Thursday night, they will need to put in a more complete effort, especially against a Marquette squad that was the most efficient offensively in Big East play this season. Cooley, Grant, and point guard Eric Atkins need to pick it up offensively as well, as Notre Dame needs its primary scorers to play well in order to beat the best of the Big East.
For their part, the Golden Eagles come into the tournament off of back-to-back lackluster efforts against Rutgers and St. John's since their impressive win against Notre Dame on March 2nd. The Irish relish another shot at Marquette, as they felt even following the 8-point loss that they could beat the Eagles but seriously underperformed in Milwaukee.
In that one, Marquette big men Chris Otule (16 pts, 8-8) and Jamil Wilson (19 pts) gave the Irish hell, and those two (along with Davante Gardner) forced the Notre Dame big men to struggle mightily. Cooley was clearly still feeling the effects of his flu bug, as he went scoreless and logged only 15 minutes. Garrick Sherman also went scoreless in an 0-5 effort. For his part, Zach Auguste played well with a 15 point, 7-10 performance, but the Irish are going to need some much better post play this time around.
Connaughton's great performance last night gives the Irish additional hope, as he and Cam Biedscheid were dreadful against Marquette last time, combining for 2-12 shooting and 1-9 from three-point land. If Grant and Atkins (who scored 21 and 16, respectively) can get some more help this time around, Notre Dame matches up very well offensively against a Marquette team that is not exactly known for its defense.
Unfortunately, neither are the Irish, although they have been much stingier in recent weeks and will need to continue that if they are to knock off one of the best offensive teams in the conference. That said, you should expect a lot of scoring in the second half with two teams whose calling card is offensive efficiency. The game within the game may very well be co-2nd team All-Big East SGs Jerian Grant vs. Vander Blue, as either of them (or both) are capable of turning in star performances. This should be a good one tonight in primetime (9pm ET, ESPN), as these teams simply match up really well against one another.