Notre Dame had already played a month of basketball when the team's two captains approached coach Mike Brey.

They wanted another captain.

Apparently so did the rest of the Irish and the team voted Russell Carter as their third captain.

The Notre Dame senior, who graduated from Paulsboro High in South Jersey, is not just making a name for himself on his own team. Carter is ranked third in the Big East in scoring, averaging 18 points a game, and has been a catalyst to the Irish's 15-2 start.

Villanova (11-5, 1-3 Big East) will meet the 6-foot-4 guard tonight, when No. 22 Notre Dame (3-1 Big East) travels to the Pavilion.

"I just started playing," Carter said, putting it simply. "We just play. No matter what we're ranked or who we're playing."

Nothing happened fast for Carter at Notre Dame.

He spent most of his first two seasons on the bench, averaging two minutes a game as a freshman and just more than three minutes a game as a sophomore. Last season, he had his ups and downs as Notre Dame repeatedly lost by last-second shots and in overtime killers.

"Anyone who sits on the bench would want to prove himself," Carter said. "I just kept working."

Brey said he saw potential in Carter but knew he needed to become more of a team player. He gave Carter credit for his patience.

"You look around, any kid who waited two years probably would have transferred," Brey said. "Russell always believed he could play here."

It's obvious that this - finally - is his time.

Carter has combined nicely with junior forward Rob Kurz, a 6-9 Penn Charter graduate, who averages 14.4 points and 8.8 rebounds a game. Senior guard Colin Falls averages 12.2 points a game.

Those two captains decided that Carter deserved to be in their circle.

"They came to me and said, 'He earned it,' " Brey said. "[Carter] had never said anything about it. It was very touching for him."

"It was an honor," Carter said. "It just showed how much my teammates believe in me."

Carter was a big name at Paulsboro, where he became just the fifth player in South Jersey history to lead the region in scoring in back-to-back seasons. He finished as the school's second all-time leading scorer with 2,287 career points.

As a senior, he averaged 30 points, 11.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists, leading Paulsboro to a 24-4 record.

Notre Dame and William and Mary were in the thick of Carter's recruiting. The Irish were drawn to Carter when they thought they might need another guard because they suspected that Chris Thomas would put his name in the NBA draft.

"I liked his personality and his intelligence level," Brey said. "He was naturally strong."

Carter has shown great improvement this season, shooting 48.2 percent from the floor, including 45.4 percent of his three-point shots.

His development makes him a living example of Notre Dame's turnaround.

Last season, the Irish suffered through a tortuous 16-14 campaign, in which they lost three games in double-overtime and dropped 13 of their games by five points or fewer.

One of those not-again losses was on a last-second tip-in by Kyle Lowry for Villanova last season in a game played at Notre Dame.

Carter averaged 11.5 points per game as a junior, but did not really turn it up until the final month of the season.

"Last year, we had so many tough losses, when you come to that point in a game, you expect it," Carter said. "Our backs were against the wall. I just took it upon myself to be more aggressive."

All those tough losses have made Notre Dame tougher this season, Brey said.

"We play with a chip on our shoulder," Brey said. "It was a learning experience. Guys went into the off-season [ticked] off. I think they've grown up."

Contact staff writer Shannon Ryan at 215-854-5503 or sryan@phillynews.com.