|Irish fans wasted little time filling up the space at the Joyce Center's floor following the upset of Kentucky. (US Presswire)|
Jack Cooley started texting his buddies as soon as the Big East-SEC Challenge matchups were unveiled this past summer and his Notre Dame squad drew Kentucky in South Bend.
"We've been waiting for this for a long time," Notre Dame's veteran big man said.
Cooley finished with yet another double-double, his sixth in nine games this season, as the Irish cruised to an easy 64-50 victory over John Calipari's young group of 'Cats. Cooley had 13 points and 11 boards, and Notre Dame's now-veteran backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant outproduced Kentucky's young perimeter players.
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I'm not sure if Notre Dame would take care of UK come February, but this wasn't even a contest early in the season. It was a matchup where one team, Notre Dame, already has defined roles and no shortage of experience while the Wildcats are so young, still learning how to play with one another -- and appeared intimidated in their first true road game. Mike Brey returned his entire team from a year ago, and was just a bucket away from beating St. Joe's in Brooklyn and coming into the game undefeated as a Top 20 team.
Obviously, experience won out in the game, but it's more than just youth for this Kentucky team.
Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin, a pair of likely lottery picks, scored just three points apiece. Goodwin is still playing a ton of minutes at the point, which isn't his natural position. It'll be interesting to see how long John Calipari continues with the experiment with Goodwin running the team, or whether he feels as though Ryan Harrow is emotionally reliable enough to give him another shot as his starting floor leader. Harrow only logged nine minutes in the 64-50 loss.
Poythress is ultra-talented, but he's been inconsistent. Then you've got the two-headed monster down low of Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein. Both are long and athletic, and both can impact the game on the defensive end. But neither are legitimate threats in the post, and neither will command double-teams. That means that Kyle Wiltjer won't get those easy looks that he saw with frequency a year ago.
Regardless of where this Kentucky team is right now, this was still a huge victory for Notre Dame -- and one that'll help with swagger and seeding down the road.
"This was the biggest regular-season win for our program in a long time, maybe ever," Cooley said. "Those guys are so athletic and are already a great team that's only going to get better."
But Notre Dame spread the court, moved the ball and made shots. The Irish also did a nice job on the defensive end, utilizing good help and positional defense. Notre Dame was 8-of-13 from beyond the arc, shot 48 percent from the field and out-rebounded UK. And let's not forget that the game was in South Bend, where Brey's Irish have been nearly unbeatable over the last few years in non-conference play.
"It was experience and playing at home," Cooley said.
Brey's blueprint has been to win with older guys. He's redshirted players as freshman -- and taken transfers -- so that he almost always has a veteran-laden club no matter who departs. This year's trio of big men features Scott Martin, in his sixth season in college, Cooley, a senior, and redshirt junior Garrick Sherman. In comparison, Noel and Cauley-Stein are both freshmen -- and Wiltjer is just a sophomore who barely played last season.
Experience does matter. So does home court advantage. Especially early in the season.