Before embarking on an always difficult Big East schedule, Notre Dame wraps up its non-conference slate with a couple of games against inferior opponents from the America East Conference.
Coming off a week break for finals, the 24th-ranked Fighting Irish look to open 10-1 for the first time in four years when they host Stony Brook on Sunday.
Notre Dame (9-1) is one of seven Big East schools in the Top 25, and has a challenging start to its conference schedule. The Irish open league play against No. 15 Georgetown on Dec. 29, then travel to fifth-ranked Syracuse on New Year’s Day and host No. 4 Connecticut three days later.
While its opening stretch of conference play seems daunting, Notre Dame shouldn’t have as much trouble in its next two games.
After playing Stony Brook for the first time since a 95-66 victory in the initial meeting in 2006, the Irish host Maryland-Baltimore County on Wednesday. Notre Dame is 12-0 against current members of the America East, including a 97-72 victory over Maine on Nov. 22. The Seawolves (4-5), meanwhile, have never beaten a team from the Big East.
The Irish have won five of six since beating Maine, with the only loss coming to then-No. 17 Kentucky in the SEC/Big East Invitational at Freedom Hall in Louisville. Notre Dame bounced back from that defeat with last Saturday’s 83-79 win over Gonzaga, and hasn’t played since.
The Irish looked like they were going to cruise to an easy win over the Bulldogs, leading by 10 with 1:18 to go, but a late Gonzaga rally cut the lead to two with less than 13 seconds left. Senior Ben Hansbrough then ended the comeback by making four free throws for Notre Dame, which is 9-1 for the second straight season. The Irish haven’t opened with wins in 10 of their first 11 games since starting 13-1 in 2006-07.
“Definitely have to be strong-minded, with the lead swings and everything,” freshman guard Eric Atkins said. “Just with the ups and downs of the season, you have to be strong-minded.”
Senior Carleton Scott led Notre Dame with a career-high 23 points last weekend, while Tim Abromaitis added 21. Hansbrough scored 13 after combining for 45 points in his previous two games.
Hansbrough averages 16.0 points to lead four Irish players that average more than 11 points a game.
“It makes us hard to scout,” Scott said. “It makes us really hard to scout because we have one guy filling in at one moment and then the next moment it is someone else. This year we are really moving the ball around, and when someone is feeling it they’re feeling it. It’s good for us.”
Stony Brook only has one player averaging in double figures, with junior Bryan Dougher at 16.2 points. Dougher scored 18 in last Saturday’s 75-66 loss to Sacred Heart, the Seawolves’ fourth defeat in five games.
Stony Brook, which joined the Division I ranks in 1999, has been outscored by an average of 31.8 points in losing all 11 games against Top 25 opponents. The Seawolves haven’t faced a ranked team since falling to No. 2 UConn 91-57 in 2008.