Alabama forward Michael Kessens (3) shoots over Notre Dame forward Zach Auguste (30) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Nov. 29, 2015, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr.)
Willie J. Allen Jr.
December 02, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) Notre Dame is unranked for the first time in nearly a year after losing twice in three games, and coach Mike Brey believes that might be the best thing for a team trying to find its way.

''It's funny, in a twisted sort of way, I think it's my favorite place to be,'' he said Tuesday. ''I'm excited, I'm energized, because our track record has been when we're kind of off the radar and back to square one, we've made some great progress.''

The Fighting Irish (4-2), ranked No. 17 before losses to Monmouth and Alabama at the AdvoCare Invitational in Florida, play Wednesday night at Illinois in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. It also will be the first game in the renovated State Farm Center.

Notre Dame is off for six days after that and Brey plans to go into a two-a-day training camp mode over the weekend.

Brey said he will use the time to work on everything from playing better defense to the spacing of big guys on offense to making free throws. The Irish were 8 of 17 at the foul line in a 70-68 loss to Monmouth and 16 of 23 in a 74-73 loss to Alabama when Zach Auguste missed a pair of free throws with 28 seconds left that would have stretched Notre Dame's lead to three.

''You make free throws and you may be 3-0'' in the tournament, Brey said.

Brey also is looking at ways for the 6-foot-10 Auguste and 6-5 forward Bonzie Colson to work together better.

''I'm trying to figure out how to help them and put them in better positions on the floor together where we have spacing. Specifically, if one of them has it in the post, what's the other one doing to not jam us up?'' he said.

Brey is focusing on holding the team accountable without getting the players so uptight that they are afraid to play.

''It's a fine line. It's not beat-down mode,'' Brey said. ''We need to be attacking and going for it.''

Illinois (3-4) has been hit with a series of injuries. Point guard Tracy Abrams is out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon. Kendrick Nunn, Leron Black and Jaylon Tate have all missed games so far, and earlier this week starting center Mike Thorne Jr. was lost indefinitely to a left knee injury.

The trip to Illinois will be Notre Dame's first true road game of the season. Brey said playing in Champaign will be a good challenge.

''I can only imagine what the atmosphere is going to be like when they open the building tomorrow night,'' he said. ''If you can scratch one out on the road, it will be a great step forward for this group.''

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