Coach Mike Brey will be the second most-revered man on the Notre Dame campus tonight, beaten only by He who overlooks the school’s football stadium, Jesus Christ.
Behind a gritty double-double performance of 17 points and 10 rebounds from junior Jack Cooley, the Irish upset No. 1 Syracuse in South Bend, 67-58.
“We had to control tempo; that was the biggest thing,” said Brey after the game. “We got every 50/50 ball. I’m just thrilled, man. I’m thrilled for this group.”
With Syracuse big man Fab Melo sitting out with an “unresolved academic issue,” the Orange were beaten up on the boards, 37-24, and much credit goes to Cooley, who led the attack on the glass.
The Irish came into the game ranked 14th in the Big East in rebounding margin, but that swung to a 13-rebound advantage because of the vacancy in the middle left by Melo.
In addition, Mike Brey’s gameplan, not just Melo’s unoccupied space in the middle, helped to sink Syracuse.
By dissecting the Syracuse zone and hitting 50 percent of its shots, Notre Dame confined the Orange to their half-court sets, eliminating the transition attack and limiting the top scoring team in the Big East to just 58 points.
The real question is, how important is Fab Melo?
He may not be a 15-point, 10-rebound type, but the slimmed-down Melo has been an impact player, especially on the defensive end.
- Against Pittsburgh he had 10 points, 10 boards, and 6 blocks.
- Against Herb Pope and Seton Hall, 12 points, seven rebounds, and 10 blocks, with Pope putting up just four points.
Credit that to his new-found mobility and his ability to shift his body in the center of the Syracuse zone.
Now, without the seven-footer anchoring the middle, there is no exact match that allows Syracuse to adapt.
Instead, Syracuse could come out with something similar to what we saw this evening, with Baye Moussa Keita playing more minutes (he played 25 against Notre Dame, more than double his season average) and freshman Rakeem Christmas filling in the gaps.
Melo will reportedly miss one more game, which means Syracuse will be without his services on the road against Yancy Gates and Cincinnati.
It will be another tough road test for the Orange, but remember that St. John’s got a road win on that same court earlier this year, using their zone to force the Bearcats into a 7-of-32 shooting night from beyond the arc.
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_