by Kevin O'Neill
Notre Dame is 21-6 overall, 9-5 in the conference, in the running for a free pass to the Big East Tournament quarterfinals, and far more likely to be concerned about where than if on NCAA Tournament selection day. Why does the season feel like a disappointment?
For me, it’s this team’s multiple personality disorder. I never know which team will be on the court from one game to the next – the scrappy team we loved so much a year ago, the lazy team that gets starters benched for eight or nine minute stretches, the sharpshooters, the brick layers, the guys who take care of the ball, the turnover champions of the world, or some other variant of the 2012-13 Fighting Irish.
But it wasn’t enough to change personalities from game to game. They have done their Sybil impersonation in-game two of their last four times they have played. My cardiologist objects.
After a rocky start caused in part by injuries and illness, the 2011-12 version of the Fighting Irish rallied to a 13-5 Big East season that included victories over then #1 Syracuse, Louisville, Connecticut, marquette, and West Virginia (twice). When that team returned almost intact and added two talented freshmen and a veteran transfer, expectations were rightfully high. In addition, the 2011-12 squad showed a tough mindedness that we all expected to carry forward.
Experience, mental toughness, and a weaker Big East have not translated into a high performing team despite the fine record. There have been memorable moments – beating Kentucky by 14 points, Cincinnati on the road, Monday’s rally to beat Pittsburgh, and a for-the-ages five overtime victory over Louisville; but there have been at least as many letdowns – listless efforts in losses to St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse, and Providence and equally listless efforts in victories over very poor Rutgers and DePaul teams. Inconsistency has been evident since the beginning of the season, but it has cost the Irish during the conference season.
Coaching this team has been like playing Whack-A-Mole. Not screening well? Work on screens in practice, improve, and move on to the next weakness. Not rotating on defense? Focus on help defense in practice, improve, and move on to the next weakness. Not defending screens well? Hedge more, dedicate practices to it, improve, and move on to the next weakness. Not screening well? Didn’t we address that? Okay, work on screens in practice, improve, and move on to the next weakness. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
Effort has been equally inconsistent, and it’s hard to tell what motivates this team. Is it the “ain’t this fun” approach that kept the team focused through five overtimes against Louisville or the brow beating that lit a fire at South Florida? Are large doses of the confidence building that was the key to last season’s rally needed, of does manhood need to be challenged like it was after the Providence game?
It has been a puzzling season.
Cincinnati will be in Purcell Pavillion looking to avenge its home loss to Notre Dame in January. If you think Notre Dame has been disappointing, Thursday night’s overtime loss at Connecticut left the Bearcats with a 7-7 conference record after being picked fourth in the Big East coaches’ preseason poll.
Cincinnati is the best rebounding team in the Big East with a +4.9 margin fueled by a 12.5 average on the offensive boards. The Cats need to be good on the offensive glass because they can’t shoot – 38.1% overall and 29.2% from three point distance. Neutralize Cincinnati on the boards, win the game.
Sean Kilpatrick was the thorn in Notre Dame’s side when the team met in January. Pat Connaughton’s job will be to check Kilpatrick. When Connaughton is on the bench, matchups will matter. If UC plays two guards, Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins can handle their counterparts effectively; but when three are in the game and Cameron Biedscheid is playing, ND will have to hide him in a zone.
UC will throw front line quickness at the Irish. Jack Cooley and Tom Knight will be matched against a combination of 7’1” David Nyarsuk, 6’10” Cheikh Mbodj, 6’8” Justin Jackson, and 6’7” Titus Rubles. Other bigs will play a few minutes at a time, so contributions from Zach Auguste and Garrick Sherman are more than a luxury on Sunday.
A victory on Sunday will virtually assure at least one BET bye and cement an NCAA Tournament bid. I don’t do predictions.
After Cincinnati, Notre Dame will have six days to prepare for an eight day flurry of games at Marquette, home against St. John’s, and at Louisville for a few more overtimes. There isn’t an easy game left, but it’s a great schedule for a team looking to establish an identity for the postseason.
How a team can miss 18 of 19 shots and then proceed to make 61% of its shots the rest of the way is beyond me, but I’ll give this team one thing that will serve it well in the postseason – It does not panic. As Mike Brey noted in his weekly teleconference, they think they’re going to win every close game whether they came from behind to have a chance or blew a lead to make it unnecessarily close.
Other Items of Note
- Pitt’s 42 points were the fewest allowed by Notre Dame against a ranked opponent since a 34-28 overtime loss to No. 4/3 Kentucky on Dec. 29, 1981. There was no shot clock in 1981, and Digger Phelps ran an offense that made Burn look like Paul Westhead invented it.
- The percentage of assisted baskets is a key performance indicator in the Mik Brey era. Sure enough, the Irish assisted on 12 of 18 field goals in rallying to Monday’s victory.
- The Fighting Irish lead the Big East in assist/turnover ratio (+1.5) but are only 12th in turnover margin. They take care of the ball, and they’re a take-care-of-the-ball carrier too.
- Despite the burden of a 1-19 shooting drought on Monday, Notre Dame is third in Big East shooting percentage – 44.5%.
- Despite Pitt’s even poorer shooting against Notre Dame, the Irish are only 12th in field goal percentage defense – 45%.
- Brey praised Cooley’s effort against Pittsburgh. “I got on him in the locker room after the Providence game, I got on him Saturday night, and I got him Monday before the game,” said Brey. “I said, ‘Put me in a position where I can’t take you out and these other three guys have to figure out who’s going to play with you.’ He did that. When he’s that, we have a shot against anybody.”
Asked about Martin’s possible return this weekend at his weekly teleconference, Mike Brey said, “I don’t know about this weekend, but he’s trying to make some progress toward a full practice in Friday. I am encouraged.”
Brey went on to discuss Martin’s role if and when he returns. While he didn’t want to get specific about starting of the number of minutes Martin might get, Brey did comment on what the Irish have missed during Martin’s absence.
“He was our best rotating defender,” Brey said. “He didn’t block shots. He led us in charges taken. But he’s always there to rotate and kinda get there. Now,” Brey said putting his index finger in the air, “We’ve made great progress with that second big coming over. Tom Knight’s gotten better. Zach came over and almost got a charge the other day. But Scott Martin was the ultimate team defender. There’s no stat sheet for the things he clogged up. It was a loss for us.”