by Kevin O'Neill
I wrote an article titled “Tick Tock” a little more than a year ago. At the time, Notre Dame was missing free throws. The team suffered through scoring droughts in every game. Defensive lapses were frequent. The close game toughness that was a hallmark of the 2014-15 Fighting Irish had not shown itself by January of the 2015-16 season.
Irish fans were concerned. Irish fans needed a reminder that all was not perfect 12 months before I wrote “Tick Tock.”
That doesn’t mean the team didn’t need to improve. That didn’t mean a sense of urgency was not necessary. There was work to do for the Irish to make the NCAA Tournament, let alone to be ready to succeed in the postseason.
Fans remember their teams based on how they finish. It’s easy to forget the painful regular season games that built towards an ACC Tournament Championship and two regional finals in the NCAA’s March basketball party.
That brings us to February 2nd, 2017.
The Irish are 17-6 overall, 6-4 in the ACC. There are four highly likely victories left on the schedule and no games ND cannot win. Barring a complete collapse, the NCAA Tournament is not in jeopardy; but the last five games, four of them losses, have Irish fans feeling more than a little uneasy.
It’s time for another reminder. All was not well at this time a year ago. There was room for the 2015-16 Irish to improve significantly, and there was time for the 2015-16 Irish to improve significantly. Both are true for the 2016-17 Irish, too; but it’s time to start seeing it.
Current Situation – The Good
While a rough patch never is something a team wants to endure, Notre Dame’s 5-0 start in the ACC built enough equity to withstand a moderate losing streak. Noting the conference’s depth of quality teams, Irish head coach Mike Brey knew it wouldn’t be easy even as his team was winning in early January.
“When you get into league play, whatever happens… short memories,” Brey said a few days before the Louisville game. He was talking about having short memories after wins as much as after losses.
Nobody was more responsible for the 5-0 start than Matt Farrell. Expected to keep the driver’s seat warm while TJ Gibbs developed, Farrell has been a revelation. The point guard position is his for the rest of the season; and while Farrell might be a victim of his own success because forcing his way into the lane isn’t working like it did a month ago, he has a solid 1.8 assist/turnover ratio over the last five games which is a notch above his ACC average. What hasn’t gone well lately, getting caught in the lane with neither a good shot or a good pass option, is correctable.
Farrell’s development as a solid starting point guard has allowed Gibbs to develop like most talented freshmen. It’s a step-by-step process that starts with adapting to the speed of college basketball, re-adapting when the conference schedule starts, and hitting a wall in January as the intensity of every conference game takes its toll. Through it all, Gibbs’ defense has been stellar; and if Monday’s performance vs Duke is an indication, the fearless drives to the basket have returned to his game.
Rex Pfleuger has been another bright spot. Like Gibbs, he has been an outstanding defender in his 20 minutes per game; and his offensive numbers have been good. He doesn’t shoot very often, but Pfleuger has made 45% of his shots and 46% of his three point attempts in conference games. Just as important to Pfleuger’s development is his turnover count. A year ago, turnovers were limiting his playing time. He has only 11 in 22 games this season.
Brey commented on Gibbs and Pfleuger at the beginning of January. “They are such an important part of who we are,” he said. “We knew we could trust Rex to always give us that defensive effort, and TJ has jumped right in there. I’ve got a lot of confidence in them.”
Any discussion of the good has to include Bonzie Colson. He has had a couple of tough scoring games against taller teams, but he has been a double-double machine who actually has better a better rebounding average in conference games than he had against less challenging competition in November and December. I can only imagine how much better his offense could be if he didn’t have to guard opponents’ best big men so much of the time.
Current Situation – The Bad
Having four players averaging right around 14 points per game helps the Irish be competitive even if one scorer is not on his game; but against top teams like Virginia and Florida State, they need all four to win. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. ND was able to defeat Virginia Tech despite a four point game from VJ Beachem, but 46 points from the other three double digit scorers wasn’t enough when Beachem scored only three points vs Virginia. Similarly, the Irish weren’t able to defeat Duke and a surprisingly good Georgia Tech (good at home, anyway) with Steve Vasturia shooting 1-9 and 1-7 in those two games.
“We aren’t going to be successful without our seniors,” Brey often has said when one of them plays a substandard game. It’s hard to argue that he is wrong, but there is an urgency to both becoming consistent and staying consistent the rest of the season because it affects their ability to lead.
It’s nice when the best player or players on the team are leaders because the younger guys can look to the same people for winning attitude and winning plays. Consistent effort from the leaders is part of the equation, but consistent performance is equally important. It’s hard to be a leader in the midst of a 2-16 shooting slump. It’s hard to be a leader when not making the winning plays in close games.
Interior defense has been an issue during the losing streak. Martin Geben has shown steady improvement through most of the season, but one rebound in 15 minutes vs Virginia was followed by poor performances and limited minutes vs Georgia Tech and Duke. A junior getting his first significant playing time, Geben appears to be a classic case of hitting the wall. He needs to get past it.
Austin Torres’ energy helps the defense in limited minutes; but the more he plays, the more his offensive deficiencies are exposed. He is a contributor within the confines of his role.
Matt Ryan had a role waiting for him, too; but he has not claimed it. A shooter by reputation, Ryan needs to be a credible defender to stay on the floor long enough to get hot. Listed at 6’7” and 228 pounds, Ryan has the strength to be a physical defender; and he showed the inclination to rebound as a freshman. Maybe he hasn’t been 100% healthy following his preseason stress fracture, or maybe he just needs more time to develop. Regardless, Ryan’s defense has been poor all season; and it has limited him to less than four minutes per ACC game. His playing time is available to anyone who can defend.
What needs to happen during the rest of the regular season for the Irish to experience success at tournament time? Here is my list in order of importance.
- Beachem and Vasturia must become consistent effective immediately. Notre Dame cannot beat good teams without both playing well.
- Farrell must stop driving into trouble so frequently. It’s okay to push, but the second blocked shot or nearly impossible reverse layup attempt needs to be an immediate learning experience.
- Geben must become aggressive again. If that means more fouls, so be it. Just make them hard fouls. It isn’t fair to expect Colson to be the primary defender on good post scorers who are three to five inches taller than he is.
- More Gibbs, more Pfleuger, and more offensive aggressiveness from both. They can take some scoring pressure off of the upperclassmen and allow them a few extra minutes of rest each half.
- Find a new last guy in the rotation. Ryan isn’t one to surrender, so a comeback isn’t out of the question; but if John Mooney or Elijah Burns is ready to provide a solid few minutes per game, let him have a shot at the minutes planned for Ryan. Based on Brey’s comments after the Duke game, Mooney is the man who is more likely to get a chance.
Mike Brey might be able to mitigate inconsistency issues by reallocating minutes, but he cannot solve that problem altogether. That’s up to the players themselves. They are upperclassmen. They know how to prepare. They know what they have to do.
“This team has always had confidence,” Vasturia said after the loss to Virginia. “We’re never going to be a finished product, but by late February we’re going to be better.”
It’s time to start making it happen.
Getting others more involved is Brey’s job. Don’t be surprised to see him try some lineup changes, including a revised starting lineup, beginning with Saturday’s game in Chapel Hill. February is when the last two versions of the Fighting Irish solidified their rotations. February is when the began to perform at a high level that carried into March.
It’s time to make a move.
Tick tock. Tick tock. Tick tock…