The Irish men’s squad headed into this week knowing they needed to play at a higher level both on offense and defense, unfortunately what they displayed was actually a step back from the week before. A week ago the Irish lost at home to a Connecticut team that is talented, but young, and still finding a way to play consistent basketball. They also lost to a very average St. Johns team on the road, in Madison Square Garden. There was a theme in both of those losses last week, which included an inconsistent offense, lack of hustle, and defensive breakdowns allowing easy scores for their opponent. One would think that those would be items Brey and staff would focus in on this week, and maybe they did, but it wasn’t apparent on the court.
Yes it’s true, the Irish did hold on to win against Rutgers 69-66, but late game defensive breakdowns allowed the Scarlet Knights to pull with 1 point in the last few seconds of the game, after being down by as many as 13 in the 2nd half. If it wasn’t for a block by Irish forward Jack Cooley, Notre Dame could actually be losers of their last four contest, instead of three out of four.
The Irish “welcomed” Big East rivals Georgetown into South Bend Monday night, and this effort was literally so bad, that even Coach Brey himself stated that “It was like boys playing vs. men” Sadly, the Irish were the veteran team, but if you watched the game, you wouldn’t have picked up on that fact. It was the Hoyas who acted like a team full of veterans, as they out hustled the Irish, dominated inside, and had an answer for any run the Irish tried to put together. Yes, this is the same Georgetown team that just lost to a South Florida team that is now 1-4 in Big East play, but yet found a way to beat Notre Dame on its home-court 63-47 . It was Notre Dame’s second worst defeat under the tenure of Coach Brey, and one that was a true embarrassment for fans to watch. The Irish, who were once 14-1 and ranked #17 in the country, are sure to fall out of the top 25 now, and deservedly so. It’s easy to just get upset at Coach Brey and his team, and scream at the TV to play better, but there are reasons they are losing, and three very specific ones, that have led to this current situation.
Rebounding – Over the course of the last four games, Notre Dame has been out rebounded 139-112, and were outrebounded by all four opponents. If it was as simple as Notre Dame being a smaller squad, that might help alleviate some of the concern for the lack of Irish boards, but that is simply not the case. On any given night, Notre Dame rotates a group of men in Jack Cooley, Garrick Sherman, and Tom Knight who stand at 6’9, 6’10, and 6’10, with Scott Martin coming in at 6’8. So it’s not height that is the issue, but rather lack of good positioning, lack of hustle, and lack of athleticism. You can’t teach athleticism, and either your team has, or it does not, and most people who follow Notre Dame basketball would agree that the team definitely lacks athleticism underneath. You can teach hustle and good positioning though, and Brey and his staff need to refocus the Irish big men on how to do that. Dennis Rodman and Charles Barkley stood at 6’7 and 6’6 and found ways to dominate the glass, so it can be done, but the question is are the Irish willing to do it.
3-point shooting – Before this four game stretch, the men’s squad was shooting at nearly a .450 clip from beyond the arc. During this disaster, they are averaging about .260, which will not get it done on any level. It is easy to say “well, the shots just are not falling”, but there is a reason for that. In the time that Notre Dame was excelling from 3-point land, they had a pretty dynamic offense. Irish guards Grant and Atkins, were consistently taking the ball to the hoop, and forcing their opponent to collapse against their interior game. The Irish were creating situations in which their opponents had to concentrate on their inside game, and also try and defend the outside shot, which is a game style that has not been seen in Purcell Pavilion very often under Brey. Notre Dame has consistently been considered a threat from outside, but the game within the lane was typically just an afterthought. During the stretch that saw the Irish go 14-1, teams had to defend both aspects, which has simply not been the case in the last four games. The biggest example of how a dynamic offense can work, is when the Irish stormed back from being 12 points down against the Red Strom. They did this by aggressively taking the ball to the hoop and scoring or drawing a foul, and also kicking it back out for open shots. Over the last four games, it seems like they have abandoned this game-style way too often and either forced the ball down-low, or just put up contested shot after contested shot. It makes the Irish a very easy team right now to defend, and Brey and staff need to recognize this and fix it.
Lack of Bench preparation – It is no secret that Notre Dame’s schedule early on was not considered much of a threat. One would assume that when the Irish were beating teams by 20 points, Coach Mike Brey would take this time to utilize his bench more, and get some of his younger players some quality minutes. While this has not been the style that Brey likes to typically incorporate over his 12 year career at Notre Dame, fans of the Irish were hoping this would be the year that he understood just how important a deep bench can be, come NCAA tourney time. Obviously this has not been the case, as once again Brey routinely plays only 6-7 players. Now, we aren’t suggesting the use of nine players during crunch time, but how is a team ever to rely on certain players, if they never see the court. What about situations where foul trouble or injuries may occur, or simply fatigue late in the season. There are reasons the Irish are considered perennial favorites to lose in the first round, when they do make the NCAA tournament, and they would be bad late-game coaching decisions, and lack of bench preparation for games like this. It’s a common theme, and we are sure that Brey is not oblivious to this criticism, but we can only assume that he is just not flexible in this area, and determined not to change. Someone should remind him that the former coach of the Chicago Bears, Lovie Smith was also considered inflexible on his decisions to run the same bland offense – Coach Smith is now unemployed. Now we are not suggesting that Notre Dame fires Coach Brey, but it amazing that year after year his stubbornness in this area goes unchecked.
The message we are trying to convey is not that the Irish are a top 5 squad, but rather that they are not nearly as bad as they have been playing. The Irish are a talented group, and that is a fact. They have the ability to drive inside, and hit from outside and play aggressive defense. They have size underneath, and are a team that is used to playing with each other. There should be a trust factor on display whenever Notre Dame takes the court, but that as of lately, is just not on display. The Irish still have to time to “right the ship” but it needs to start now. This upcoming week Notre Dame will head to South Florida on Saturday, and then will welcome Villanova into town on Wednesday, January 30th. The game against South Florida can be seen on ESPN3 and ESPN Full Court with a 12pm. tip-off, while the game in South Bend against Villanova can be seen on ESPN2 and ESPN 3, with a 6pm. Tip-off. Both of these match-ups are games the Irish should have a good chance at winning, but then again, so were the last four.