by Kevin O'Neill
Which Notre Dame team will play Marquette in Milwaukee on Saturday? Will it be the team that played smothering defense against Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, holding them to 42 and 41 points respectively; or will it be the team that surrendered 68.8 points per game in its first 13 conference contests, a number that would fall behind all but four Big East teams today?
Early in my business career, I learned an important lesson about dealing with employees who performed poorly. By the time a manager has to issue a final warning, he’s finishing the process of terminating a poor performer. The decision has been made. Thus the final warning must come with the longest probation period possible. Anyone can be good for 30 days; but when the probation expires, the employee almost always slides back to dysfunctional behavior. 90 days is better because a problem employee can’t behave that long without making some real changes.
How is this digression related to Notre Dame Basketball? Well, I look at new defensive orientation as the behavior of a team saving its season, just like the poor performing employee saving his job; and I wonder if the Irish will slide back to their more typical defensive effort now that an NCAA Tournament bid is a virtual certainty. Is this team like the employee who goes back to late arrivals, long lunches, and annoying his coworkers once probation is over?
The last two games’ defense and rebounding have been the best I have seen since Mike Brey’s earliest Notre Dame teams, the ones that featured outstanding defenders like Ryan Humphrey, Danny Miller, Harold Swanagan, and Torrian Jones. The recent turnaround started when Mike Brey had a “Come to Jesus” conversation with the team after the Providence debacle. His message was clear. This team needed to be tougher on defense and tougher on the boards or, as Jack Cooley put it so aptly after the Cincinnati game, they “wouldn’t win another game.”
The part of ND’s recent defensive improvement that isn’t directly related to effort is the emergence of big men Tom Knight and Zach Auguste. They, their size, and the toughness they have added to the lineup are here for the duration.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Hey, get tougher,’” Brey said recently, “but when you’re more of a four-one team (four guards/wings and one big man) or maybe your four is more of a step out guy and not the physical banger, you’re going to be a little limited with how physical you can be; but we’ve got four bodies, those big guys, that can really lay the wood to people on screens and block-outs. And if one fouls out, no problem. If one gets in foul trouble, we’ll keep going with somebody else.”
Just about any team can do it for two games. There are at least five more games left to play. If the defensive intensity continues, it will be several games more than five.
The Fighting Irish (22-6/10-5) will travel to Milwaukee to play Marquette (20-7/11-4) at 2:00 PM Eastern time on Saturday. ESPN will televise the game.
The Warriors, currently tied with Louisville for second place in the Big East (behind UL via head-to-head tiebreaker), have the same significant strength and the same glaring weakness as Cincinnati. Regarding the former, MU has taken over Cincinnati’s conference lead in rebounding margin (+4.8). Regarding the latter, Marquette is 13th to Cincinnati’s 12th in three point shooting. They have made only 28% of their three point attempts, but they’re far more judicious than UC when it comes to taking threes having tried only 228 of them in 15 conference games compared to the Bearcats’ 324.
A team that leads the league in rebounding while starting three guards and a 6’6” forward has to be physical, and Marquette is. Of course, bringing 6’8”, 290 lb. Davante Gardner off the bench for 22 minutes a game doesn’t exactly hurt the rebounding effort.
The match-ups will be interesting. Atkins vs. Junior Cadougan is a given because they’ll be the only small guys on the court. Purely from an entertainment standpoint, the pairing I want to see is Pat Connaughton guarding Vander Blue, the Warriors’ leading scorer (15.1 ppg). Connaughton takes great pride in his defense. He’ll want to make Blue a non-factor, but Blue is tough in his own right and will take to the challenge. It will be big boy basketball.
Cooley must get the better of starting center Chris Otule when they’re matched against each other, and he must neutralize Gardner, Marquette’s #2 scorer (11.8 ppg), when the Warriors’ big man is on the floor. When Marquette plays both Gardner and Otule, Cooley and Knight must win the battles.
Zach Auguste’s quickness has made him an effective defender against smaller men lately, so he can create a rebounding advantage without getting whipped man-to-man when Marquette plays a smaller lineup.
I like Notre Dame’s chances in this game because, assuming the Irish remain inclined, I like the defensive match-ups Brey can create. Defend the drive, break even (or better) on the boards, and hope Marquette doesn’t pick Saturday to have a hot shooting game. That formula will bring a victory back to South Bend.
Something for ND fans to watch during the game… Otule, like Notre Dame’s Eric Katenda, has sight in only one eye. You have a chance to see if you can observe any limitations Katenda will have when he is ready to play next fall. Rob Dauster interviewed both young men for a Sports Illustrated article last fall, and they sounded alike in terms of attitude.
“You can do anything that anyone with two eyes can do,” said Otule. Being a multi-year starter for a good Big East team suggests that he’s right.
The Big East Race
With a 10-5 record, the Irish are in contention for the double bye in the Big East Tournament that comes with finishing in the league’s top four. Here is how they look vs. the contenders:
- Georgetown (12-3): Because the Hoyas defeated Notre Dame, a tie does the Irish no good. To catch them, ND would have to defeat Marquette, St. John’s, and Louisville while GU loses to Rutgers, Villanova, and Syracuse. Possible, I suppose, but not likely.
- Louisville (11-4): UL has to play at Syracuse (noon Saturday on CBS) before coming home to play Cincinnati and Notre Dame. The Irish must match the Cardinals and beat them in the season finale to finish ahead of them. A tall order, but not preposterous.
- Marquette (11-4): The Irish must win on Saturday. Even at that, it’s going to be tough to stay ahead because the Warriors play Rutgers and St. John’s to complete their regular season. At least those two games are on the road.
- Syracuse (10-5): Syracuse holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over ND, so the Irish must win one more than the Orange. Syracuse has three games left – Louisville, DePaul, and at Georgetown. If ND wins two and SU loses two, the Irish will pass Syracuse. Possible. Very possible.
- Pittsburgh (10-6): Notre Dame has the head-to-head tiebreaker, so it can stay ahead of the Panthers by finishing with the same number of losses as Pitt. However, six or seven losses won’t get ND into the top four. Pitt has to win its two remaining games (Villanova and DePaul) to have a chance at the double bye. There is a good chance that will happen, but the top four finish would remain a long shot.
Adidas unveiled new postseason uniforms for several of its college basketball clients including Notre Dame. Fan reaction has been mostly negative, but there are a few supporters. Will the supporters remain happy when they get a load of the new warm-up outfits?
Big Game for the ND Women
The Fighting Irish women’s basketball team has a scrimmage in Providence on Saturday before returning to Purcell Pavillion to meet Connecticut in their regular season finale Monday evening. I realize that there aren’t many women’s basketball fans among the men’s fan base, but two points need to be made about Monday’s game:
- This is a hard nosed bunch that has earned my support. I don’t recommend watching them because they’re good. I recommend watching them because of how well they compete.
- Beating UConn and its coach Geno Auriemma is a holy thing.
One more thing… Will Skylar Diggins be added to Notre Dame’s Ring of Honor after Monday’s game? She should be.