by Kevin O'Neill
How Notre Dame would exit the NCAA Tournament has been more predictable than when it would exit even though when has been awfully consistent over the last decade. The blueprint was always established during the regular season.
Take, for example, the 2010-11 team that was the #2 seed in the Southwest region. The Irish entered the tournament having won 12 of 14 games.
That team relied on three point shooting more than its predecessors. 38% of its attempts from the field came from beyond the arc; and it made 40.4% of them during the conference season, the best in the Big East. Tim Abromaitis’ 47% and Ben Hansbrough’s 43% led the way.
When that Fighting Irish squad was making its shots, it was tough to beat. However, its losses provided the blueprint for its defeat. For example:
- The Irish made only 19% of their threes against Marquette’s aggressive perimeter defense when they met in Milwaukee. The Warriors made 71% of their long range shots, and Notre Dame lost 79-57.
- ND made 20% of its threes against St. John’s aggressive perimeter defense in the teams’ first meeting in New York. SJU, a poor three point shooting team, made 44% of its long range attempts that night, and the Irish lost 72-54.
- Playing Louisville in the Big East Tournament semi-final game, Notre Dame went cold in the second half when the Cardinals challenged the perimeter more aggressively. A 20% three point half led to UL’s 40-26 scoring advantage in the second half, and ND lost in overtime.
How Notre Dame would lose in the tournament was, therefore, predictable. Florida State, a tall and athletic team, challenged ND’s shooters. The Irish made only 23% of their threes for the game, only 10% in the first half. The Seminoles made 47% of their threes, 58% in the first half. ND fell behind early, never quite got back into the game, and lost 71-57. All according to the blueprint.
Last year it was a different bane – the dry spell. For example:
- ND trailed St. John’s 56-54 with 3:20 left ito play when the teams met in Madison Square Garden. The Irish made only two of seven shots down the stretch and lost a game that was well within its reach 61-58.
- The Irish scored only two 2 points in the last 7:34 of the first half against Louisville in the Big East Tournament semi-final. They trailed by two points, 19-17 when the dry spell started. Louisville led 35-19 when the first half ended, and the final score was 64-50.
- Five points in five minutes mad the late season victory over providence more interesting than it needed to be.
- Scoring just six points in the last 5:20 at Connecticut caused the Irish to sweat a 50-48 victory.
- Four points in six minutes turned a 10 point second half lead over West Virginia into a one point deficit before ND re-took the lead and won by four points.
Based on that history, a dry spell somewhere in the NCAA Tournament was inevitable. Unfortunately it came against Xavier in the first round. Leading 48-38 with 12:20 left to play, Notre Dame scored only three points over the next 6 minutes, and the game was tight the rest of the way. We all remember Eric Atkins going to the free throw line with two seconds left and a chance to force overtime only to have the made front end of one-and-one erased by a lane violation. It wouldn’t have been an issue without the second half dry spell.
Which brings us to this year’s Fighting Irish. For a change, There isn’t a formula for beating this team, at least not one that I can see.
- It has won handily after dry spells that have killed past Fighting Irish squads – at USF, at Pittsburgh, and against Marquette in the Big East Tournament.
- It has shot poorly from outside and won – at DePaul, at home against Cincinnati, and in the five overtime victory over Louisville.
The common denominator in losses through most of the season was poor defense and rebounding, but defense and rebounding have improved dramatically over the last fourth of the season. Over its last seven games, the Irish have out-rebounded opponents by an average of almost four per game; and those seven opponents have averaged 11 turnovers per game. ND’s rebounding margin had been negative through its first 14 conference games, and opponents averaged two fewer turnovers per game up to that point.
Have we seen a change in the Notre Dame program start to happen ahead of schedule? With more talent in the program, I expected defensive improvement; and I expected to have secondary and tertiary ways to win when an important aspect of ND’s game failed. Has that already begun to happen?
We will know by the end of the weekend.
Looking at highlights from recent Notre Dame games, I noticed something I didn’t expect to see. Garrick Sherman is setting great screens. If Pat Connaughton is open and Sherman is on the court, there is a good chance that the man who was following Connaughton is looking at the letters on Sherman’s ugly green jersey.
There are good examples 1:38 and 2:27 into the Marquette game highlight video.
Passing to the Three Point Shooters
After watching games late in the afternoon and throughout the evening on Thursday, I have developed a greater appreciation for how good Notre Dame is at passing the ball to open three point shooters. Time after time, Irish passers put the ball chest high and centered, perfectly positioned for catch-and-shoot. Time after time, I watched tournament teams make would-be shooters jump, reach, or move their feet to catch a pass giving defenders a chance to recover to the ball.
Again in the Marquette highlight video linked above, there are great passes to Connaughton at 0:35 and 2:27. That’s at least one more perfect pass to a three point shooter than I saw as I toggled around eight games on Thursday.