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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

Irish prepare for marquee matchup with Spartans

After a comeback win over then-No. 6 Wichita State to cap off an undefeated run to the Maui Invitational title, the Irish find themselves ranked amongst the nation’s best teams in the latest AP poll.

But that ranking will be immediately put to the test, as No. 5 Notre Dame will travel to East Lansing, Michigan, to take on No. 3 Michigan State at the Breslin Center. And it’s a challenge the Irish (6-0) are looking forward to.

“I think it’s great to be challenged, there’s no question about it,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said Tuesday. “Our old guys, veteran group — they want to play big games. Doesn’t get much bigger than this against a great opponent. … I have a feeling we’ll be really focused.”

Notre Dame’s No. 5 ranking marks it’s first time amongst the nation’s top-five teams since 2011, and the team believes the poll position is a blessing as far as recognition for its performance so far, but also serves as motivation going forward.

“It’s just a great motivator for us,” senior forward Bonzie Colson said Tuesday. “We’re staying humble and hungry at all times, but we’re just excited for that acknowledgment and just going to keep playing Notre Dame basketball.”

And that motivation will be key, as the Spartans (5-1) represent the toughest test the Irish have faced so far this season, at least on paper. After a losing to No. 1 Duke on Nov. 14, the Spartans have won every game they have played since by at least 18 points, including a 63-45 victory over then-No. 9 North Carolina on Sunday in which the Spartans held the Tar Heels (5-1) to just 24.6 percent from the floor and 1-for-18 from 3 — both the lowest marks in North Carolina history.

Looking ahead to that test, Brey said he believes the preparation for Notre Dame will be similar to its preparation for its final game in the Maui Invitational, though with a twist.

Zach Yim | The Observer
Irish senior guard Matt Farrell prepares to drive on an opponent during Notre Dame's 105-66 win over Chicago State on Nov. 16 at Purcell Pavilion.

“In a way, it’s a little bit similar to the Wichita State preparation, but I think they’re Wichita State on steroids,” Brey said. “They’re barreling downhill on you in their offense, and they’re all over the backboard. And then they guard the heck out of you in the half court. That is what we faced out there in Maui last Wednesday.”

The biggest challenges Notre Dame will face, according to Brey, fall on the defensive end, however. In particular, the speed and size of Michigan State’s front court will be perhaps the most challenging matchup the Irish defense has seen so far this season.

“The biggest fear, especially early in the game, is transition defense,” Brey said Tuesday. “They really get down the floor quick. We have not been tested in our transition [defense] … they run more on makes than they do on misses — big guys really sprinting the floor, and they’ve got fresh big guys in there all the time.

“And then rebounding the ball — can we keep it to one-and-done? We were able to do that against some athletic ability with LSU and Wichita State, so I’m encouraged, but it’ll be a heck of a challenge with all the size that they have.”

And on the other end of the court, the Irish will hope to play closer to their second-half performance — in which they shot 58 percent from the floor — than that of the first half — in which they shot just under 41 percent — against the Shockers in Maui.

“Offensively, we had a hard time figuring out what to do offensively against a great defensive team in Wichita State in the first half — how do we get into a better flow offensively? Because that can certainly help your defense if we’re flowing a little bit better on the offensive end,” Brey said.

In order to avoid getting off to that slow shooting start, the Irish will look to be more selective with their use of ball screens and look to avoid becoming stagnant when off the ball, senior guard Matt Farrell said.

“We’ve got to mix [our ball screens] up a little bit, flatten the defense, move them around a little bit and then sprint to a ball screen and see how that goes,” Farrell said. “We’ve just got to move better and talk better, but our defense is going to be big down there.”

But despite the challenges the Spartans pose, the Irish will head to the Breslin Center for Thursday’s 7 p.m. tipoff with plenty of confidence in their ability to win on the road — something they had even before taking the Maui crown.

“There’s a confidence playing away from our building, starting with the DePaul win,” Brey said. “[Maui] was a good thing to do and have to get through tough stuff on the road right away. We played well away from our building, and this atmosphere will be as good as any one that we’ve played in. … It’s a great test of our road demeanor up there.”