Ind.-Pur.-Ft. Wayne-Notre Dame Preview

The Associated Press

Notre Dame appears to be hitting its stride just before conference play.

Already playing stellar defense, the Fighting Irish's offense seems to be catching up.

No. 22 Notre Dame will try for its 26th consecutive non-conference home victory Monday night when it hosts IPFW, the first of three straight favorable matchups in South Bend leading up to the start of Big East play.

The Irish (9-1) have played solid defense all season, particularly when they held then-No. 8 Kentucky to 50 points and 40.4 percent shooting. The team's seven straight wins have all come by double-digit margins as the offense is starting to catch fire, too.

Notre Dame surpassed 80 points for the third time in four games in an 81-68 win against Purdue on Saturday in Indianapolis.

Leading scorer Jack Cooley (14.6 points per game) scored a team-high 18, but he received plenty of help. Three other players - Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton and Garrick Sherman - each scored 11 or more while Jerian Grant added nine along with eight assists and seven rebounds.

Notre Dame has been efficient with the basketball, recording a 1.72 assist-to-turnover ratio that ranks second in the nation. The Irish average just 10.9 turnovers a game.

"We are playing very well, especially on the offensive end," said Cooley, one of the nation's leading rebounders at 11.1 per game.

"Our defense was good at the beginning of the year, and now our offense is catching up to where our defense was. We are flowing very well, and we're just playing really well on offense. No one is being selfish, and that is great to see."

The Irish don't force a lot of turnovers - just 11.3 per game - but still manage to stifle their opponents. They're holding foes to 59.3 points per game on 37.9 percent shooting, also yielding just 5.2 made 3-pointers per contest.

"We have a great frame of mind," coach Mike Brey said. "These guys love playing together, and they do play beautifully together. How they move the ball, cut and share it. I love that we have had a defensive identity from the beginning of the season.

"Our offensive identity has just kicked in. We can still get better."

IPFW (5-6) hasn't played since Dec. 8, when it took its second straight defeat with a 74-64 loss at Drake despite leading scorer Frank Gaines (20.0 ppg) tallying a game-high 27 points. The Mastodons committed a season-high 21 turnovers, shot 35.6 percent from the floor and never led against the Bulldogs.

Notre Dame holds a 3-0 edge in the series, including a 92-49 victory in the most recent meeting in 2006. IPFW is 0-37 all-time against major-conference teams and 0-8 against ranked squads.

The Irish, who have won 42 of their last 43 at home, will play two other favorable home games - against Kennesaw State and Niagara - before hosting Seton Hall on Jan. 5 to open conference play.

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