No. 23 Notre Dame focused on No. 9 Louisville

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The holiday break and college hoops have often been a bad mix around Northern Indiana for No. 23 Notre Dame.

The Fighting Irish (12-2, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) often play in front of thousands of empty seats from mid-December to mid-January in an arena that holds only 9,149. There are no students, no band and no juice. Despite advancing to consecutive NCAA tournament Elite Eights, their next sellout this season will be the first.

Heading into Wednesday’s ACC opener against No. 9 Louisville (12-2, 0-1), with the students still on winter break and the game ticketed for a late start, Irish coach Mike Brey doesn’t want to hear any excuses about a less-than-capacity crowd.

“We need our fans,” Brey said as the Irish look to start 2-0 in league play for the second time in three seasons. “Like, a 9 o’clock late game and the students not here is not an excuse. That’s not an excuse.”

Especially since Notre Dame found a way to battle back from five points down in regulation, then again down five in overtime, for its first league win Saturday at Pittsburgh. On New Year’s Eve with the Pittsburgh student body mostly absent.

“We played Pitt the other day on break and it was rocking in that place,” Brey said. “We’ve had success here against Louisville when the place has been rocking. We don’t have our students, so we need our sixth man to help us.

“If they help us, we’ve got a great chance of winning.”

Louisville sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell leads the ACC in steals at 2.1 and is coming off a career-high 25 points in Saturday’s win over then-No. 16 Indiana. Fellow sophomore Deng Adel added 17.

The Cardinals face their fourth ranked opponent in a row. Louisville is 2-1 with wins over Indiana and Kentucky and a loss to Virginia to start league play.

“We’ve played a very, very tough schedule,” said coach Rick Pitino.

Picked in preseason to finish fourth, No. 9 Louisville was one of three ranked ACC teams — along with Duke and North Carolina — to open league play 0-1.

“This is just an amazing league with great strength and teams that people did not expect to be great,” Pitino said. “I could not tell you right now who has the best chance of winning this league. I couldn’t even give you a top three.”

Louisville inserted Anas Mahmoud into the starting lineup Saturday at the center spot, a move that Pitino believes helped the Cardinals better move the ball.

Pitino also praised Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency Tuesday, but the Irish defense has been better this season.

Notre Dame finished 158th last season in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency, which tracks points allowed per 100 possessions. The Irish were at 102.9. Fourteen games in, Notre Dame ranks 93rd in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The Irish are at 99.0.

A year after the Irish finished 144th nationally in scoring defense (70.6 points per game) and 156th in field-goal percentage defense (43.2), those numbers have improved to 72nd (66.2) and 40th (39.1).

Power forward Bonzie Colson covers a lot of space with his 7-foot-plus wingspan around the low block. Power forward Martinas Geben knows how to use his 6-10, 255-pound frame to defend in the post. Guards V.J. Beachem (6-8) and Steve Vasturia (6-6) are long on the perimeter while point guard Matt Farrell plays with a bulldog/challenge-you mentality.

The Irish also have two reserves in sophomore Rex Pflueger and freshman T.J. Gibbs who check in at key times often thinking first and second and sometimes third about guarding.

“It comes down to energy and the will to want to play defense,” said Pflueger, who often tag-teams with Vasturia in getting after the other team’s most talented perimeter player while Gibbs’ concentration centers on point guards. “It comes down to, do you really want to exert as much energy on defense as you do on offense?

“We’re doing a great job balancing it out.”