Irish Brace for Big Blue Nation

Atkins and the Irish face a major test tonight

For many Irish basketball fans, the 2012-13 season tips off tonight, with 6-1 Notre Dame hosting defending national champion Kentucky at the Purcell Pavilion.

If you're just joining the fray, Mike Brey's 2012 Irish have played seven games and won six. Aside from that, there's not much to report to date regarding Notre Dame's non-conference basketball season.

Not with the nation's No. 1 football team dominating November headlines; not with the reality of modern college basketball's completely devalued regular season, as roughly 90 percent of the sport's fans wait until March to ratchet up more than passing interest.

And not with a host of tomato cans visiting the Purcell Pavilion prior to tonight.

Notre Dame's lone loss knocked it from the national rankings (#20 entering a November 16 contest vs. St. Joseph's in Brooklyn). The 79-70 overtime decision was one the Irish let get away, leading 66-58 with under four minutes remaining in regulation.

Brey's veteran bunch bounced back the following night in a Coaches vs. Cancer Classic consolation game, winning 78-68 vs. Brigham Young.

And now, at least for those that appreciate the journey as much as the destination, the fun finally starts:

Big Blue Nation hits South Bend, with 4-1, #8, and defending national champion Kentucky the premier non-conference program to hit town since UCLA three Decembers prior. (In terms of modern appeal, its not close, but rivalry games with UCLA bring about a change in the sometimes disinterested locals.)

Stocked with new freshmen on their annual collective pit stop to the NBA, the nation's youngest collection of talent will face off with a program that prides itself on "staying old."

And the old guys are staked as one-point favorites tonight.

"If we're going to be successful Thursday night, our experience and our poise are going to have to play out, and we're going to have to be really good in that department for close to 40 minutes to beat the talent they put on the floor," said Brey of the Wildcats.

"I hope it comes into play," he continued of the program's veteran core. "That's been a big thing that's helped over the years. We've stayed old. We've not had to rely on playing a lot of young guys."

Under head coach John Calipari, Kentucky plays plenty of the latter each season, this year with four of the team's top six players and three of its starters true freshmen including 6'10" Nerlens Noel, the nation's top-ranked center for his class. Also in tow are third-ranked shooting guard Archie Goodwin, third-ranked power forward Alex Polythrees, and 7'0" backup center Willie Cauley-Stein -- ranked 15th behind his top-ranked classmate above.

Still, thanks to six-plus seasons of home court dominance, Brey's Irish are viewed as a pick 'em favorite according to Vegas.

"Not letting them get to deep, keeping them to one-and-done will be the ultimate challenge," said Brey of tonight's contest. "But its a similar preparation, an athletic front line, to what we see in the Big East (at times). We have to neutralize these bouncy, athletic front lines. The nights we do it, we're able to get out with a win. The nights it gets to us, we usually lose the game in the Big East.

"We have to understand: they're going to have some highlight dunks. Thankfully they only count two (points)."

Those might be the first two points season ticket holders see this season, as preliminary matchups with the likes of Monmouth, St. Francis, and Chicago State have played in front of a sleepy November slate in South Bend.

"I think for a lot of people its our season opener," Brey noted. "Our fans have kind of looked at it, and with what football has been doing, its very fitting that our season opener comes with a six-week pause before the national championship football game.

"It'll be a fun night, a great atmosphere in our building, and I think its two very good teams going at it early in the season. For our players, its one they've talked about all summer."

Win tonight and the Irish will solidify a spot among the nation's top 20 with only a Crossroads Classic game vs. Purdue the remaining challenge prior to conference play. Ranked third by the league's coaches in the pre-season, the team's stated goal was a legitimate chase for a first-ever (outright) Big East regular season crown and/or the conference tournament title to boot.

Tonight will offer an indication if the Irish have chops to accomplish both.

Game Notes

The Irish are 105-7 in their last 112 games played in South Bend, second nationally to Kansas in that span.

Notre Dame is likewise 40-1 over its last 41 home tilts (Big East schedule included) and 64-1 in its last 65 non-conference home games, including 23 straight victories.

The Irish are 16-23 against A.P. Top 10 teams in the Brey era including 11-6 at home. Notre Dame upset No. 1 Syracuse last January, one of three straight the team has won against top 10 foes. The Irish are 4-1 vs. such teams in their last five.

IrishEyes.com Recommended Stories