FORT WAYNE – Notre Dame couldnt have picked a better time for an early-season basketball showdown.
The Irish (7-1) play host to No. 8 Kentucky as part of the SEC/Big East Challenge at 7 tonight, and Notre Dame coach Mike Brey expects to have the fans attention with the football team idle until the Jan. 7 BCS championship game in Miami.
I think for a lot of people, its our season opener, Brey jokingly said. I think with what football has been doing, its very fitting now that the season opener comes with a six-week pause before the national championship football game.
Its going to be a fun night. It will be a great atmosphere in our building. I think two very good teams going at it very early in the season.
Kentucky is the defending NCAA tournament champion, but as usual under coach John Calipari, the Wildcats have a different team than the one that won the title.
The entire Kentucky starting lineup from last season – Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones, Marquis Teague and Doron Lamb – was selected in the NBA draft. They have been replaced by freshmen Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, with sophomore Kyle Wiltjer and graduate student Julius Mays.
Its definitely a challenge in a sense that you are not as familiar with the personnel, and they havent played many games, so there is not much to scout, Irish guard Scott Martin said of preparing for tonights game. Theyre obviously a very talented group and skilled group. You hear all the hype and how they are all future pros. We are excited to come out and play as a team and work as well as we can together to try and get this win.
A key for the Irish getting a win will be how they handle the 6-foot-10 Noel and 6-7 Poythress. The forwards average a combined 30.8 points and 16 rebounds.
Notre Dame will counter with 6-9 forward Jack Cooley, who leads the team with 14.3 points and 11.3 rebounds per game, and 6-10 reserve center Garrick Sherman, who averages 11 points and 4.9 rebounds per game.
I always like when we play a team that has big guys on it, Cooley said. That means I get to see how I compete against some of the best bigs in the country, and these two are no exception.
Notre Dame has already faced a challenging front line this season when it lost to St. Josephs 79-70 in overtime Nov. 16, and Brey is hoping for a better outcome tonight.
Were going to have to understand theyll have some highlight dunks, Brey said. Thankfully, they only count two. (Kentuckys) shooting percent in the paint is off the charts. Its keeping a body on people, not letting them get too deep. Keeping them to one (shot) and done is the ultimate challenge. Its similar preparation, as far as an athletic frontline, as what see in the Big East on a few nights.