On Wednesday night, Notre Dame men’s basketball faces its toughest test to date as they host No. 20 Michigan State. On the heels of their first loss of the season, the Irish will look to get back in the winning column with a marquee victory against a battle-tested Spartan team. The game comes as part of the final iteration of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, as it was announced earlier in the week that the event will be replaced by the ACC-SEC Challenge next season.
The Irish (5-1) enter the matchup having split their previous two games. Last Tuesday, Notre Dame led Bowling Green by just one point with under eight minutes to play but continued the habit of playing their best basketball during crunch time. The Irish used a decisive 17-0 run to coast to an 82-66 win that was much closer than the score would indicate.
On Friday afternoon, Notre Dame saw their undefeated start slip away in their first trip away from Purcell Pavilion. Facing St. Bonaventure in a neutral site matchup, the Irish struggled to find their footing offensively in a 63-51 defeat. Notre Dame converted on just 2 of 17 three-point attempts, uncharacteristic for a team that had previously averaged nearly 80 points per game behind strong perimeter shooting. On Monday, Irish head coach Mike Brey spoke about how the Bonnies took his team out of their comfort zone offensively.
“I think there’s no question that the ball pressure bothered us, the athletic ability pushed us out a little bit. You get off to a horrible start and you’re kind of uptight,” Brey said. “We’re struggling to find that rhythm.”
The Irish will need to find it fast as they prepare for Michigan State (5-2), who has been among the nation’s most impressive teams this season. The Spartans, unranked in the preseason, have ascended the polls after holding their own against an unforgiving early schedule. Michigan State has picked up wins against No. 19 Kentucky, Villanova and Oregon, while their losses have come in tight contests against No. 14 Gonzaga and No. 11 Alabama. After consecutive wins to close out the Phil Knight Invitational last week, the Spartans will look to keep rolling in what will be their first true road game of the season.
Wednesday’s game pits Notre Dame against their first ranked opponent as well as their first from a major conference. Brey made no attempt to downplay the game’s significance but did not want the Irish to be mentally bogged down by the high stakes at hand.
“These are your power games now, you have a great opportunity here,” Brey said, speaking on the Michigan State game and the Irish’s upcoming ACC opener against Syracuse. “It’s a fine line of [paying] attention to detail but being loose and going for it. Playing but not playing with the weight of the world. I think that’s kind of the balance point that you try to strike with these guys.”
Luckily, the Irish roster is loaded with players that have experience in finding that balance. Graduate students Nate Laszewski, Dane Goodwin, Trey Wertz and Cormac Ryan all played key roles in the team’s run to the second round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. After strong starts to the season offensively, particularly from Laszewski and Goodwin, the quartet struggled to put the ball in the basket against St. Bonaventure, combining to shoot under 30% from the floor. Brey is confident that the veteran core will shake off the tough night and return to the high level of play that they exhibited to start the season.
“This is why they came back, for these kinds of games,” Brey said. “I trust them because the four of them have been in big games and great atmospheres here.”
Ryan described his excitement for a primetime game in front of Notre Dame’s home crowd.
“I think Wednesday will be fun,” Ryan said. “We love playing in [Purcell]. Our students are amazing and our fanbase has been really strong for as long as I can remember.”
While the veterans will need to be at their best against Michigan State, Notre Dame has gotten a boost by the play of its freshmen in the last week. Against Bowling Green, JJ Starling erupted for a career-high 23 points while missing just one field goal attempt. Starling added six rebounds, three assists and three steals in the best all-around performance of his young career. He, along with the rest of the Irish, struggled to find his shot on Friday, but appears more comfortable by the day as he establishes himself as one of the ACC’s best rookies.
Freshman forward Ven-Allen Lubin was arguably Notre Dame’s top performer against St. Bonaventure. Coming off the bench, he secured his first career double-double with 10 points and 13 rebounds. The Irish currently rank last in the ACC (and No. 343 nationally) in rebounding. Lubin’s status as the team’s only true interior player makes his play critical against Michigan State, especially on the glass. Lubin spoke about his blossoming confidence in his first season with the Irish.
“I feel like my role here is really important to this team,” Lubin said. “If I continue to produce the way that I did last game, I feel like I can make an impact here.”
Ryan reinforced the importance of Lubin’s game as a change of pace for Notre Dame’s perimeter-oriented roster.
“Ven’s been amazing,” Ryan said. “I think he brings physicality and athleticism to our group. We need him playing with confidence just like everybody else.”
On Monday, Brey said that Notre Dame’s shooting woes against St. Bonaventure can be partly attributed to exhaustion, as just six players have absorbed nearly all of the team’s minutes. They are unlikely to find any relief on Wednesday, as Brey indicated that graduate student guard Marcus Hammond, who has yet to play this season as he recovers from an MCL sprain, is a “longshot” to take the floor against the Spartans. Hammond has practiced this week and is on track to return Saturday against Syracuse.
Battling that fatigue will be just as important on the defensive end, where the Irish will look to slow down a high-powered Spartan attack. Senior guard Tyson Walker (15.6 ppg, 4.6 apg) does much of the damage for Michigan State. Senior forward Joey Hauser (13.9 ppg, 47.2 3P%) is one of the nation’s premier shooters. Limiting Hauser’s long-range opportunities will be key for the Irish, whose “bend, but don’t break” defense has focused on preventing threes at the expense of allowing easy two-point opportunities. After struggling defensively to start the season, Notre Dame has held its last three opponents under 70 points. A similar effort, coupled with a return to form in terms of shooting, will put the Irish in position to take down the Spartans.
Wednesday night’s game presents many opportunities for Notre Dame. The Irish have the chance to get back in the winning column after their first defeat, to earn their first marquee win and to begin the season-long task of building an NCAA Tournament-worthy resume. Ryan is confident that the team will be at their best.
“That’s why you play the game. You want to play big games, big-time opponents, especially when you have a team as good as we do. You want to go up and see what you’re made of, go up and battle against great teams,” Ryan said. “We obviously know what we’re capable of and we’re ready for it.”
Notre Dame faces Michigan State on Wednesday night at Purcell Pavilion. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:15 p.m. on ESPN2.