Notre Dame transforming into a contender

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- With about 10 seconds left in a tie game against Louisville, Mike Brey took a Beamonesque leap of faith in his team.

“Twenty-three!” the Notre Dame coach yelled, jumping up and down on the sideline. “Twenty-three!”

Brey was calling for his Fighting Irish to switch from man-to-man into a 2-3 zone defense. Right now. With the game on the line and the ball in play, as Cardinals point guard Peyton Siva bounced it 23 feet from the basket.

There was a timeout before that final possession, but Brey didn’t plan this switch in the huddle. This was on the fly. This was remarkable.

In today’s short-attention-span game, coaches call timeouts to pound plays into the heads of their players -- and then still watch them forget to make a cut or switch a ball screen. Here was Brey making an impromptu adjustment with everything on the line -- and if one of his five guys doesn’t pick it up, Louisville probably has a wide-open layup or jump shot to win the game.

So how did it work out?

“We switched into it within 1 ½ seconds,” guard Ben Hansbrough said. “It was like a Transformer.”

And that is why Notre Dame has transformed itself from a preseason pick for mid-pack in the Big East into a serious championship contender in the toughest conference in college basketball.

Beautiful minds. Mature minds. Veteran minds that a coach can trust at crunch time.

Seamlessly moving into that 2-3 zone, the Irish forced Louisville into pause mode. The long Notre Dame arms shut off the penetration of Siva, who has been Mr. Clutch for the Cardinals by fearlessly driving the ball in nail biter victories over Connecticut and West Virginia. Siva tried to penetrate and kick to the wing to Preston Knowles, but the pass was deflected. Knowles tracked it down and had to launch a contested 25-footer that bounced off the rim.

Brey’s Call of the Year sent the game into overtime, and from there it was an Irish rout. Notre Dame scored the first 14 points on its way to an 89-79 victory in a thrilling matchup of overachievers, and now has a stronger hold on second in the Big East. The Irish (20-4, 9-3) are a game ahead in the loss column of Villanova, Louisville, Georgetown and Connecticut, and have beaten three of those teams head-to-head (along with first-place Pitt on the road).

“It’s been a heck of a ride,” Hansbrough said. “But that said, we’re still very hungry. Our appetite is getting bigger and bigger.”

Hey, Notre Dame could wind up eating the whole enchilada. Sounds crazy, I know, but this is that kind of season.

What the Irish lack in athleticism and quickness, they make up for with one of the oldest lineups in college basketball. In a sport rife with inexperience and youth-related error, smart and experienced can be gold at this time of year. It’s gotten the Irish into the top 10 now, and there’s no telling how far it could get them in the postseason.

Hansbrough has played 124 college games. Tyrone Nash has played 108. Carleton Scott 74. Tim Abromaitis 71. Scott Martin 55.

That’s a positively Jurassic starting lineup by current standards. These guys probably played with John Shumate and Adrian Dantley. Were they recruited by Digger?

“It’s a little bit of a throwback to days gone by in college basketball to have seniors, fifth-year seniors who know the game and have been around,” Brey said. “Their ability to concentrate every day, for five months, has been a tremendous advantage.”

The breakout season by Hansbrough has been advantageous as well.

Psycho B, the little brother of former North Carolina All-American and current Indiana Pacer Tyler “Psycho T” Hansbrough has the same competitive furnace as Tyler, half the height and twice the personality. He’s 6-foot-3 but carries himself like he’s 6-9, hurling his body into the lane and all around the court.

Unlike Tyler, Ben is much more openly emotive. But now he’s scoring like big bro, and it’s his newly diversified offensive game that has helped elevate Notre Dame to a different level.

Hansbrough had a team-high 25 points against Louisville, his sixth 20-point performance in Big East play. He’s shooting the same percentage as last season from 3-point range (41 percent), but already has gotten to the foul line as many times this season (129) as all of 2009-10. His enhanced ability to put the ball on the deck makes him a much tougher assignment than at any previous time in his career.

Hansbrough is complemented by a quartet of 6-8 players, making Notre Dame one of the bigger teams in the country. The Irish used that size Wednesday night to counteract the quick, four-guard lineup Rick Pitino employed, pounding the Cardinals on the glass 42-30.

At times, Louisville’s quickness held sway -- particularly in the first half, when the Cards took a 44-40 lead behind Kyle Kuric’s 18 points. Pitino has endlessly harped on Kuric to be a more assertive player -- to show some swagger, if you will -- and he finally did at the end of the half. It ended up being a very important play in the outcome of the game.

Kuric soared in on a fast break for a fairly stunning dunk on Martin in the final second of the half. After landing, the 6-foor-4 Kuric stared for a second or two at the fallen Martin. That was enough to earn a technical foul, and Notre Dame’s two made free throws loomed rather large when the game went into OT.

“At first the ref said Kyle said something, but he hasn’t said anything in three years,” Pitino said. “He’s a complete mime. He’s the nicest young man on the team.”

Whatever you think of the call, it was one more opportunity Notre Dame took advantage of. That’s what veteran teams do, and that’s a big reason why the Irish are a perfect 6-0 in games decided by six points or less or in overtime.

“They’re hungry, man,” Brey said. “They’re chasing it down.”

For a team that started the season picked seventh in the Big East, this has been a pretty delicious turn of events.

“We thought it was kind of our turn,” Abromaitis said. “We didn’t get a ton of respect coming in.”

Who needs respect coming in when you can earn it coming down the stretch?

Notre Dame’s old-timers are doing that right now.