by Kevin O'Neill
Measured in time, the difference between bad and good is approximately 70 minutes – the last 30 Notre Dame played against Pitt and the 40 minutes of outstanding all-around basketball it played against Cincinnati. Until the Fighting Irish found their legs 10 minutes into the Pitt game, their February performances had been lackluster at best and (poopy) at worst.
Two wins over Big East bottom feeder DePaul required overtime. Syracuse coasted to a 16 point win over the Irish, and the Providence loss was an embarrassment. The five overtime gut check against Louisville looked like an effort outlier; but I have to wonder it it wasn’t the one thing Mike Brey was able to use to reach this quirky bunch, the example of what this team could accomplish if every last guy gave maximum effort.
It didn’t happen immediately after the Louisville game, but this Notre Dame team has found a toughness I didn’t know it had; and I’m not sure the team knew it either. The Irish are starting to realize that they have muscles they can flex, and they’re going to need them at Marquette on Saturday. ND just out-boarded the Big East’s #5 and #1 rebounding margin teams by a combined 83-52. Marquette is #2. The Warriors are also the #2 field goal percentage team (.455) despite the drag on that stat of their terrible three point shooting (.285). The game will be won or lost in the paint. Only men need to board the bus to Milwaukee.
What has changed? Attitude, I think. Pat Connaughton talked about it after the Cincinnati game. “It’s one-on-one defense,” he said, “keeping our man in front of us, taking a lot of pride in it. They can’t win if they can’t score.” Better still, Connaughton was genuinely angry when JaQuon Parker beat him in the lane for two early baskets.
“We didn’t have to say anything to Pat,” Brey said after the game. “He was pissed off.”
Parker didn’t score again in the first half.
It doesn’t hurt to be using four big men, either. Six weeks ago, the lineup was Jack Cooley and four guards most of the time. Garrick Sherman was first man off the bench, but he played like a really tall guard (sans jump shot) most of the time. When Tom Knight got his chance, he was smart enough to know that throwing his 260 lbs. around would keep him in the starting lineup. Add Zach Auguste’s emergence as a shot blocker, rebounder, and improving man-to-man defender and you have a team that can challenge shots in the lane without worrying about foul trouble and match up with anyone on the boards.
Peer pressure can be a good thing, and Sherman appears to be feeling it from the other big men. Three men are competing for one spot plus a few minutes spelling Cooley and Connaughton each half, and the team’s defense and rebounding are better for it.
The hallmark of Mike Brey’s program at Notre Dame is passing, and this season is no exception. The Irish have assisted on two thirds of their baskets in conference games. They lead the Big East in assists per game and assist/turnover ratio. Nationally, they are second in assists per game and first in assist/turnover ratio.
Notre Dame has maintained that performance in the face of more aggressive defense on the ball meant to disrupt its offensive flow. The tactic has been successful at times, but the Irish have been working on counter-measures in practice. “We’re trying not to make too great of a pass out of the double team,” Jack Cooley said after the UC game. “Two passes later, we can make the scoring play. It’s great to see us translate from practice to games and be so successful.”
Freshmen Making Progress
Brey was asked about Auguste’s progress becoming part of the offense. “I think he’s done a good job of knowing how to screen and how to pass and take good shots,” the coach said. “He’s not forcing anything. He gives us size around the bucket. He’s a key guy for us. I think he’s gotten easier to play with.
“Both he and Cam have gotten easier to play with. They understand now, after four months and 25 games, that this is how I play off these veteran guys. They’re enjoying it, and they’re getting results.”
Double Digits Again
Sunday’s victory improved NDs’ conference record to 10-5, the fourth straight season with a double digit victory count and the sixth in seven years. That’s a nice accomplishment, but ten wins is one better than a .500 record over the last six Big East seasons. However, only one of ND’s double digit counts was an even ten during that time frame, and it isn’t likely to be settling for ten this season.
Mike Brey commented on the achievement after the game. “The consistency of our program in regular season Big East play, which gets you an NCAA Tournament bid and has gotten us there a lot, is something we really hang our hat on and talk about,” he said. “We’re proud of that.”
The Conference Race
The Big East race got more interesting over the weekend. Two losses separate the top six teams. Key games this week are Syracuse at Marquette on Monday, Georgetown at Connecticut on Wednesday, Louisville at Syracuse on Saturday, and Notre Dame at Marquette on Saturday. The Irish could find themselves as high in the standings as third place by Saturday’s tip-off and, with a victory over the Warriors, in a position to clinch a pass to the BET quarterfinals by defeating St. John’s on March 5th.
I’ll be back with an update on the Big East race and a Marquette preview later in the week.