The Notre Dame Fighting Irish (9-3) had one last chance on Tuesday night to warm up before beginning conference play with a tough one at Virginia.
Let's hope the Irish worked off the holiday rust, as they put in a disappointing effort against the worst opponent on their schedule en route to a fairly easy but uninspiring 17-point win over the Liberty Flames (3-12).
In this one, the slow start was ominous as the first TV timeout came following a sleepy 4-4 draw in the game's first four minutes. The Irish rarely turned up the heat for the remaining 36 minutes, with Notre Dame apparently content to keep the Flames at arm's length rather than running them out of the building like you might otherwise expect a tournament quality team to do at home to KenPom's 344th ranked team.
Every time it looked like Notre Dame might pull away, they left the door cracked for Liberty to stay afloat, with a dumb turnover, a lackadaisical effort on the boards, or some misses at the free throw line. The Irish largely did their job on the defensive end (save for way too many offensive rebounds conceded to the Flames) but never really got on a roll offensively.
A 52% night from the field, including 45% from 3-point land, is not the worst effort in the world even if a few points below their season average, but let me remind you, this was the 341st rated defense in the nation. The Irish just did not look like themselves, and 13 turnovers and 10 missed free throws did nothing to improve that impression.
Only two Notre Dame players finished in double-figures - Steve Vasturia with 17 in a nice 5 of 7 bounce back performance and Zach Auguste with a by-the-book 13 and 14 double-double. 18 bench points helped spread the rest of the scoring out.
The Flames' Caleb Homesley led all scorers with 18 and Evan Maxwell added 15 of his own, but much of those 33 combined came in a barely-even-trying second half for the Notre Dame defense.
Notre Dame finishes the non-conference portion of their schedule at a fine 9-3 record, but that mark is really the ultimate "what could have been" after the Irish dropped 2, possibly all 3, in unlikely collapses down the stretches of those games.
Notre Dame heads to Charlottesville on Saturday to take on the #5 Virginia Cavaliers in a 5pm tip-off on ESPN2.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- This was just a total non-effort for the Irish. I'm not sure what it was, but it looked like they wanted to be anywhere else but in the Purcell Pavilion Tuesday night. Even every time they showed Mike Brey sitting on the bench, he looked like he was ready for the game to just be over.
- This just won't cut it come Saturday. I'm not saying Virginia is unbeatable (Cal should've beaten them the other night), but the Cavs are just too good for a less-than-complete effort from an Irish team that hasn't quite hit their potential yet. How things can turn on a dime. Through 32 minutes against Indiana, it looked like this team had finally clicked and was ready to be an ACC contender. In the 88 minutes since, they have been somewhere between unimpressive and just plain bad. I'm not sure if that gets turned around, at least in time for Saturday's game.
- I don't know what to say about free throws (14 of 24 tonight). It's such a tough thing for a coach. The more you stress it and make guys work through it, the more it becomes A Thing. They said on the broadcast how Brey put them through free throw drills the past few practices, and it looked like everyone from Demetrius Jackson (3 of 6) to Matt Ryan (missed a front end) to Zach Auguste (5 of 8) were just thinking way too much from the stripe.
- Austin Burgett inexplicably got the call before Rex Pflueger. Of course, Burgett committed an offensive foul on a moving screen in literally his first possession in the game. What did Rex do in the past week to get in the coach's doghouse? Between that and Matt Farrell's 3 for 3 night, I think we can all put our dreams of Rex taking some of Farrell's minutes to rest for awhile.
- Turnovers are another troubling trend with these guys, which is very un-Brey-like. 13, 11, and 11 the last three outings. I think that projects to about 34 turnovers for Saturday's game at Virginia.
- If you can't tell, I'm not getting the warm-and-fuzzies from this team right now. They SHOULD be 11-1 or 12-0. They needed colossal late-game screw-ups to lose all three of those games. From that perspective, maybe those things just kinda balance out and they nab a couple of those in ACC play or at least don't let games slip that shouldn't. On the other hand, this team just doesn't look like it has the right mindset after the Indy collapse, and I'm just having nightmares of going to Virginia and setting a bad tone for ACC season. Hopefully Brey can rally the boys and keep them in the right frame of mind the next few days with no school and an empty campus.