NOTRE DAME — Notre Dame enters its inaugural Atlantic Coast Conference game against No. 7 Duke looking for answers two weeks after losing leading scorer Jerian Grant because of an undisclosed academic violation.
Coach Mike Brey is far less interested in figuring out the new league than he is figuring out which Fighting Irish players will step up and fill the void left by Grant.
“That’s a work in progress,” Brey said. “Really, since we’ve been back after Christmas, you’re plugged into practice trying to figure it out almost like the first week of practice. ... We’ve done a lot of evaluating of us instead of breaking down who we’re playing in the ACC.”
Not the ideal situation heading into a game against Duke (11-2) and arguably the best college player in Jabari Parker. The game has plenty of story lines, too.
First, Brey will be facing his mentor, Mike Krzyzewski, the man who gave him his first college job when Brey was a high school assistant coach. In eight seasons in Durham, Brey saw the Blue Devils go to six Final Fours, four NCAA title games and win two championships.
Krzyzewski, meanwhile, will be coaching in South Bend for the first time since saying he didn’t think the ACC should have accepted Notre Dame while allowing the Irish football program to remain independent.
The Irish (9-4) will be playing their first ACC game after 18 seasons in the Big East, but the only story line they are focused on is finding a way to replace the 19 points and 6.2 assists a game they lost in Grant.
“We’re going to have to get this thing together quickly,” said Eric Atkins, who needed a career-high 30 points for the Irish to beat Canisius in overtime on Sunday. “It’s like a new season for us. No one really expects much of us anymore. So we’re just going out there and letting it rip.”
Duke players say they will focus on slowing Atkins.
“We are going to try to get into him and make this a fast-paced game. Hopefully it will take them out of the game,” Rodney Hood said.
Brey said it needs to be a team effort, saying no one player is expected to replace Grant, a preseason all-ACC team selection when the Irish were picked to finish fifth in the league. It’s doubtful many people outside the Notre Dame locker room expect the Irish to finish that high in the league now.
“We are underdogs the rest of the year,” Brey said. “I don’t think anybody gives us much of a chance on Saturday. But we’ve been in these situations before in this building and we’ve played and rallied really well.”
Notre Dame is 12-6 at home against top 10 teams under Brey, most recently beating eighth-ranked Kentucky last season. But the Irish, who entered the season with a home record of 117-9 over the previous seven seasons, already have home losses this season to Indiana State and North Dakota State.
For Duke, it’s the first true road game of the season.
“We played on neutral sites but it’s still not the same as a road game,” Hood said. “We have got to be more together and be connected on both ends of the court. It’s going to be loud. It’s going to be a good test for us to see where we are at. Our goal is to win the ACC. This is our first step.”