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  • New and Improved

    by Kevin O'Neill

    Grammar fanatics say that “New and Improved” is an impossible condition. Don’t tell Mike Brey. His Fighting Irish are both.

    After losing four games in a row, Brey committed to playing a small lineup full time. That wasn’t new. Brey has used the small lineup as a change of pace throughout the season, but this was different.

    New

    Playing small meant that the Irish would concede mismatches for the entire game. It meant compensating with different approaches on both ends of the court. It meant “new.”

    Instead of running the offense through the post, Brey changed the base halfcourt offense to “five out.” The Irish routinely start with everyone outside of the three point arc to create space for penetration – penetration by Matt Farrell of course; but any of the five on the court might dribble into the lane to score, find a cutter, or feed an open perimeter shooter.

    Instead of defending the post conventionally, Notre Dame became more aggressive on the perimeter to disrupt opponents’ offensive rhythm; and when the ball makes it to the post, the Irish utilize the length of Bonzie Colson and VJ Beachem to show an inside shooter a lot of arms and hands.

    Different

    Former president of Coca-Cola Don Keough will attest that new doesn’t always mean better. It might mean different, but better is TBD.

    What should we reasonably have expected playing a team of point guards and wings in the ACC?

    What

    Why

    More reliance on three point shooting Compensate for lack of inside presence.
    Lower overall shooting percentage Fewer high percentage shots near the basket
    Scoring droughts Outside shots don’t always fall.
    Exacerbated rebounding problems If it was a problem playing bigger guys, it isn’t likely to improve playing smaller.
    Improved perimeter defense More Rex Pfleuger and more TJ Gibbs means more athleticism defending the perimeter.
    Poor interior defense Opponents exploiting their size advantage.

    Better?

    Are the Irish more reliant on three point shooting? Not really. 58.3% of their shots came from three point range during the first 11 conference games. 59.5% of their shots have been threes since going to the small lineup. Their three point shooting percentage hasn’t changed appreciably, either. It was 39.1% before going small, and it’s 40.0% since the change.

    Did the shooting percentage fall? No. It’s actually more than three points better, 44.5% during the first 11 ACC games and 47.9% since going small; and while three point shooting essentially has not changed, ND’s two point shooting has, counterintuitively, soared from 47.6% before going small to 54.7% since the change.

    Have there been scoring droughts? No. Not yet, anyway.

    Has rebounding been a bigger problem than it was before? Actually, rebounding has improved. The Irish averaged 31.4 rebounds per game during the first 11 ACC games and 34.3 since going small. Meanwhile, opponents’ rebounds per game have fallen from 37.4 per game over the first 11 to 35.5 since the Irish went small. The Notre Dame rebounding margin was an abysmal -6.0 before going small, but it has improved since the change. The gap is down to -0.8 with the smaller lineup.

    Has perimeter defense improved? If three point shooting is an indicator, the answer is yes.

    “One of the things we’ve tried to do, no matter who we play, is really chase people off the arc,” Brey said.

    Before going small, opponents made 34.9% of their threes. They have made 31.4% since the Irish went small.

    Has interior defense suffered? Somewhat. Opponents two point shooting percentage has improved from 50.1% during the first 11 ACC games to 52.0% since the Irish went small.

    Summary: Most of what one reasonably might have expected to happen after committing to a small lineup has been decided positively. The question is…

    Why?

    The answer is… Bonzie Colson. Others have played well since the change, but the five-out attack takes full advantage of Colson’s skill set. Known as an undersized power forward, Colson runs, shoots, and handles the ball like a wing; but he scores from the post and rebounds like a power forward. He is able to back his defender to the basket and beat him with an array of moves. When defenders back off of him, he takes and makes outside shots. Better still, he has become a pretty good passer from the post, so double teaming him has been ineffective because his teammates maintain spacing so well.

    The result of going small has been some eye popping stat lines that are likely to cement Colson’s membership on the All-ACC first team. His 23.3 point scoring average and 10.5 rebounds per game since the Irish went small include 27 points and 16 rebounds vs Wake Forest followed by 33 points and 13 rebounds vs Florida State.

    Comeback Kid

    VJ Beachem also has played well since Notre Dame downsized; but truth be told, his resurgence began weeks before the change.

    Irish fans expected a lot from Beachem after his strong postseason performance in 2016. Defense never was his strength, but Beachem’s offensive game excited the faithful; so a series of poor offensive performances led to disappointment and doubt.

    Brey stuck with Beachem through his struggles saying that his team only would succeed if his seniors were successful, and Beachem has rewarded his coach’s faith.

    “He’s really been on a good roll for us,” Brey said after Saturday’s game in Raleigh.

    Beachem has averaged 18.1 points over the last 10 games while making 48.2% of his shots from the field, 44.9% from three point range.

    One of those 10 games was a poor performance vs Virginia: 1-10 from the field, 0-5 from three point distance, and only three points. In the seven games since the Irish played Virginia, Beachem’s numbers are even better: 19.1 points per game and 51.1% shooting from the field.

    Brey’s smaller lineup has moved Beachem from the wing to the paint on defense; and that change seems to suit him. He is not gifted with the kind of lateral quickness Pfleuger and Gibbs have, but that’s a deficiency on the perimeter that matters much less near the basket. Meanwhile, the 6’8” guard’s height and wingspan give him the ability to alter shots with the occasional block for good measure.

    “I think the closer it gets to March the better he plays,” Brey said. “Last year he was off the charts in March.”

    Good timing.

    Double Bye

    They aren’t a lock to hold the spot, but the Irish are in sole possession of fourth place in the ACC. Florida State is a half game behind them, and Duke is a half game ahead. Both have tiebreaker advantages. Both also have several difficult games remaining while Notre Dame is strongly favored to win the two home games left on its schedule before going to Louisville for the regular season finale.

    Based on probable outcomes of all games involved, TeamRankings.com projects Notre Dame to hold the fourth spot and the double bye in the ACC Tournament that goes with it. Who was thinking that way two weeks ago?

    Why is the free pass to the ACC Tournament quarterfinals important?

    Obviously, it’s a less stressful path to the ACC finals; but that achievement is not assured given the quality of competition at that point in the tournament. It does cap the number of games played a week before the big tournament, a check in the plus column after a long season.

    What matters most is that a winning conference season means no angst on Selection Sunday. It means good seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

    “That’s how we’ve played our way into NCAA Tournament bids very regularly, handling regular season league play well whether it’s the Big East or the ACC,” Brey said.

    Let others sweat. The new and improved Fighting Irish are a lock to be in the field.

    3 Responses to “New and Improved”

    1. Great move by Mike going to this lineup. They will have to scheme more to double down on a strong post player and then rotate on the perimeter. But athletic guys like Rex and TJ can do that and will get you more loose balls. Good to see Matt Ryan make a few shots but his perimeter defense is holding him back. It’s obvious to see. Needs to improve lateral quickness in the off season.

    2. Farrel2Bonzie says:

      This shift has worked but I have some reservations. I think Geben was more of the issue because he flat out isn’t good enough. Also, the results maybe there lately but the competition got a lot weaker as well. They didn’t beat the better teams except FSU with this new lineup. I would’ve loved to see Coach Brey utilize Mooney/Burns before shifting straight to the small ball lineup to see if Geben was indeed more of the problem. Hope I’m wrong but this lineup may be more of a product of who they’ve played then anything else. Bonzie can’t dominate on the offensive side and have to be the sole defensive stopper/rebounder.

    3. Interesting results with going small. Beacham clearly needs more room to get open and get his scoring going and small ball has been a big plus for him. It also plays well into Farrell’s strength of operating in open spaces. His energy and freedom to roam and create is critical for a post season run to the final four. Obviously, Bonzie has flourished as well. What other team in the nation has this kind of versatile talent and unique skill set? Inside moves, incredible touch inside of 10 feet, 3 point range, short range jumper, etc! Steve has become the silent contributor during this resurgence and becomes the glue guy, the final minutes foul line guy, the 6-8 rebounds per game guy, the defensive stopper guy and then the “slam dunk” guy! With the down shifted lineup, Rex gets more of an opportunity to score unexpected threes, flicks, tips, assists and hounding the best offensive opponent. TJ also sees more time to showcase his talents which puts more pressure on opposing guards and takes some heat off of Farrell. It’s no wonder they’re on a 4 game streak. The combination of speed and quickness on the floor at all times generates an advantage on both sides of the ball that positions them to be in every game regardless of who they are playing. And isn’t that exactly what you want at the end of each and every game – a chance to win and a chance then to win it all in March!

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