Al Davis' oft-referenced edict,"Just Win, Baby" as the owner of the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders speaks to champions throughout the sporting world. Saturday in Rosemont, Ill., Notre Dame wasn't playing for a championship, they were in survive and advance mode, escaping long-time rival and Big East bottom-feeder DePaul in overtime. In doing so, Mike Brey's squad kept on solid ground for an NCAA bid and stayed in the running for a Big East crown or at least the conference's top tier.
Road-challenged college basketball team's operate under an addendum to Davis' original phrase. It isn't as catchy, and certainly not as inspirational:
Just Don't Lose, Phew...
The Irish didn't, but they played incongruent halves of basketball, looking all-the-world like a modern-era, athletic basketball team in the first, the regressing to a three, arguably four-man crew gutting out a win after blowing a lead in the second. They stayed alive.
But something more important than the annual chase for that modest goal of tournament participation manifested during Saturday's contest, specifically in the aforementioned inspired first half:
Brey's new look Irish advanced their evolution.
Freshman backup power forward Zach Auguste ran the floor and finished with authority. He blocked a shot in aid of his teammate. He, at least at times, knew where to rotate defensively, where to go offensively, and appeared on the verge rather than merely on the team.
Auguste's classmate Cameron Biedscheid is a few months ahead in his development. He's hit 6 of his last 11 open shots from long range over the last two outings and Saturday added a confident pull-up jump shot to his arsenal. He, like Auguste, ran the floor with purpose.
So too did senior Tom Knight, next year's starting center as an assumed fifth-year returnee. Knight hit open shots for the third straight game, dunked in traffic, grabbed contested rebounds, and defended.
But unlike Auguste and Biedscheid, Knight did all of the above in the first and second half.
That's the next aspect of the 2013 Irish evolution.
Like the Comfort of an Old Shoe
DePaul, now 1-7 in league play, nearly made Brey's Irish its first close-game victim. After previously taking four Big East teams to the wire through the first half of the league season including an overtime loss at St. John's in its most recent outing, the Blue Demons again let a team off the hook as Notre Dame emerged bother but unscathed.
And light years removed from defeat. Or in NCAA Tournament Selection Committee parlance, a "bad loss."
There's no such thing as a bad win in college basketball, and Brey secured his 17th victory by relying on his veterans. It's a 13-season formula that's worked well for the Irish leader, his win yesterday marking the 139th in Big East play, tying ex-St. John's coach and Basketball Hall of Famer Louie Carnessecca for fourth all-time in conference annals.
Its also a sign the Irish have far to go if they're to break a maddening barrier that's haunted the program since its last Sweet 16 appearance in 2003.
Notre Dame 2013 is nowhere near a finished product, not with an infusion of athleticism, size, and shooting/scoring touch Knight, Biedscheid, and Auguste. Not with 6th-year senior captain Scott Martin potentially returning this month or the next. Martin has approximately a zero percent chance of upsetting team chemistry. He's be a coach on the floor. A back line defensive anchor. If healthy, he'd be a threat to drain from deep as he did on 10 of his first 14 conference three-point attempts before knee tendinitis rendered him stationary.
But this long-desired evolution wasn't the story Saturday. Only Knight was part of the team's crunch-time five led by old hands Jack Cooley (26 points, 16 rebounds, 3 blocks) and Eric Atkins (16 points, 5 assists, 4 steals). Only Cooley and Atkins scored in overtime, with Atkins manufacturing seven of his team's nine in the extra session.
Cooley and Atkins wouldn't let their Irish lose. Without help, they won't be close to enough.
Jerian Grant has proven clutch, if inconsistent. Pat Connaughton more the latter than the former, but with the ephemeral quality of upside coupled with enticing athleticism. He's scuffled since Biedscheid, Knight, and Auguste have emerged, though only the former should in any way affect his role or minutes of which Connaughton played 38 vs. DePaul; 20 on a bad shooting night last Wednesday vs. Villanova.
Without Martin, and since senior transfer Garrick Sherman's disappearing act, the Irish will go with seven. Biedscheid and Auguste will fall victim to "Big East Men" as Brey is fond of saying. The former needs about 20 pounds of muscle to reach his potential; the latter will simply be better next year than this spring.
Two of Brey's seven are learning as they go.
For better (mid-March) or worse (a conference loss), it might be time to let them go a little more.