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Notre Dame's Brey says Cats' talent will eventually rise

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey brings the Fighting Irish to Rupp Arena on Saturday.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey brings the Fighting Irish to Rupp Arena on Saturday. (Joe Raymond)

The scenario of facing an opponent that is coming off three straight losses is not typically one that would overly concern most coaches.

When that opponent is Kentucky, however, the conversation takes a different twist.

That's the situation facing Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on Saturday as he takes the Fighting Irish into Rupp Arena to play the struggling Wildcats.

"I understand they're 1-3, but I also understand they have three first-round picks, and the light bulb is going to go on, and they've got a heckuva coach," Brey said Thursday via Zoom video conference.

Notre Dame (1-2) has also struggled a bit out of the Covid-impacted gates, but not quite on the level that Kentucky has thus far.

The Irish lost 80-70 in their opener to No. 13 Michigan State, picked up a modest 78-70 win over Detroit Mercy, and battled No. 22 Ohio State to a 90-85 setback in their last outing.

Kentucky, meanwhile, followed a season-opening win over Morehead State with double-digit losses to unranked Richmond and Georgia Tech sandwiching a hard-fought 65-62 loss to No. 6 Kansas in the Champions Classic.

"I understand the Kentucky dynamic," Brey said of the angst brewing across Big Blue Nation. "I get it. But I think both teams are pushed back against the wall a little bit right now."

The big difference between the teams at this juncture is a common theme. Brey has a veteran-dominated starting lineup, although he is limited to small rotation with two freshmen coming off the bench. John Calipari has yet another "new" team -- this time, almost literally -- with only one returning player from last year's active roster. And that player, sophomore forward Keion Brooks Jr., is currently sidelined with a calf injury.

"We are older and I think we've kinda found out a little more about ourselves (than UK has) through these first three games," Brey said. "We know who we are... We do know how to play, especially on the offensive end. This group knows who they are offensively. The five starters are older and have played together a lot, and Kentucky is younger and growing.

"I look at the NBA Draft projections and two of their starters are in the Top 10 and I believe (Olivier) Sarr will be a first-round pick, so it's not like they're hurting for talent. But the way we built the program, we have four- and five-year guys, and we grow older together, and this group is kinda starting to hit its stride, especially the junior class, they're starting to kinda grow up and look like young men than boys when we played them as freshmen and sophomores."

Notre Dame is led by junior guard Prentiss Hubb, who is averaging 22.3 points per game early in the season. The 6-foot-3 standout is coming off a 26-point, six-rebound, six-assist performance against Ohio State.

"He's my (Patrick) Mahomes," Brey said in reference to the Kansas City Chiefs' dynamic quarterback. "It all comes off of him. It's hard to take him out of the game... There's a toughness about him, there's a leadership now because it is his team, it's his voice."

Brey thinks UK has a star of its own in Sarr, the 7-foot transfer from Wake Forest who has battled against Notre Dame in ACC matchups earlier in his career. In a Feb. 29 matchup last season, Sarr had 30 points and 17 rebounds against the Irish.

"We did a good job against him at home last year, but my god, did we make him a first-round draft pick in Winston Salem," Brey said. "I had a couple of clips on the scout tape of him today of him wheeling and dealing on us, and you can't really guard him with one guy.

"I"m very impressed with him. He's a beautiful basketball player. He's a bit of a ballet dancer at 7-feet. Hands and footwork and balance. There's just not a lot of big bodies like that that move that smoothly."