Sometimes it's difficult to trace the evolution of a team over the course of a season. Other times, you play the same team twice in the span of fifteen days, as the Fighting Irish did with the defending champion Huskies over the last fortnight-plus. In South Bend January 14th, the Notre Dame held a slim halftime lead but were totally overrun by UConn in the second half, getting killed on the boards (42-30) and eventually having their 29-game home winning streak halted 67-53.
Fast forward to January 29th. The Irish go into Hartford, early tip off, relatively tame, off-campus crowd and hang around with the Huskies in the first half. This time UConn takes the slim lead into the locker room, only on the other side of the break, it's not the champs running away with it. Instead the Irish explode with a 13-0 run to start the half, holding their hosts scoreless for over seven minutes. (This led to great joy among the announcing crew, as per tradition, the UConn crowd doesn't sit until the first made basket of the half. They were standing for a while.) Much like they did with Seton Hall on Wednesday when shots weren't falling, it was the Irish defense that did the dirty work while the offense got into a groove. I'm going to discuss this later in the week, but the transition from a sagging man-to-man to the intense, clingy, perimeter defense you're seeing now has the potential to take Notre Dame basketball to another level. Heck, over the last few weeks, it already has, especially when you consider the offensive limitations and youth.
As they've done on their winning streak, the Irish got more than their fair share of 50-50 balls. They won on the boards (27-24, a fifteen-rebound swing). The guards took care of the ball (Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins combined for 76 minutes, 9 assists and 1 turnover). Pat Connaughton kept growing up (8 points, 5 boards, 2 threes and a pair of game-salting free throws late.) Jack Cooley actually had a quiet game by his standards with 8 and 7, but he managed to outscore and outrebound 58 minutes worth of UConn forwards, surpassing the combined efforts of Alex Oriakhi, DeAndre Daniels, Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander and Roscoe Smith.
I realize this has been said by everyone from casual Irish fans to national college basketball writers, but Mike Brey getting this team to 6-3 is remarkable. They're starting a sophomore, a redshirt freshman and a true freshman at the guard positions, with the Atkins-Grant tag team playing more like two grizzled partners instead of a pair of guys who have played less than two dozen games together. Two plays stand out as what you get from athletic, high basketball IQ guards. Early in the second half with the Irish up two, Shabazz Napier cut into the lane and went up for a shot. Grant just ripped the ball away from behind - half-block, half-steal - and started a fast break with Atkins. Grant kicked it to Atkins on the wing, got the ball back then looked inside as Atkins slipped into the corner. The Huskies' defense collapsed inside and the sophomore point guard knocked down a wide open three that forced a Jim Calhoun timeout.
The second play was with just over four minutes left and Notre Dame again clinging to a two point-lead. UConn rebounded an Atkins miss and tried for a quick outlet, only to have it stolen by Grant. Two UConn players ran at him, leaving Cooley wide open for a dunk. A great hustle play on the other led to another fast break layup, and a six-point lead that would prove to be enough of a margin through the final buzzer. It's just smart, gritty, beautiful basketball, and it's only going to get better as Atkins, Grant, Connaughton and Dragicevich get more comfortable with one another over the next few years.
The Irish now sit at 6-3, and have the week off until Marquette comes to South Bend on Saturday. I am very comfortable saying that five more conference wins get the Irish into the dance, meaning they just have to have a winning record over the back nine. The fact we're even having this conversation after an autumn and early winter of non-conference losses and blowouts is amazing.
A few more bullet points on Saturday's win:
- Scott Martin took a lot of heat early in the season, and while he still has at least two mind-numbing, finger-biting, obscene-text-worthy turnovers a game, he's done a great job of the last couple weeks knocking down some shots, rebounding the ball and playing incredible team defense, wracking up charge after charge. On a team that is rather young across the board, the old man is doing a lot of little things to help out the cause. If he can just erase the heinous errors, my stress level will drop considerably.
- Mike Brey going without a mock turtleneck was confusing and made me uncomfortable. He also incorrectly referred to it as a Miami Vice look, which is very wrong. A) His jacket was too dark and B) He wasn't wearing a neon t-shirt.
- Brey is doing a nice job of shuffling in a few guys in the first half to see if they can give the team a spark, then settling on a very thin rotation in the second half if no one is piquing his interest. When you run the Burn offense, you give everyone but the primary ball handlers a chance to rest, so you can get away with that strategy.
- If any of your friends complain about the Burn offense somehow ruining basketball, frame it as a challenge the team is trying to complete. Anyone can score with 35 seconds on the clock, but what if you only have 8 ticks to execute? Notre Dame is just keeping it interesting for themselves.
- If you're interested in a good read on the women's team, SI's Richard Deitsch reports from their win at St. John's over the weekend, which pushed them to 21-1.
- The Irish have five more home games. Win those, go dancing, regardless of what happens on the road (and there are winnable games away from the JACC). Legion, I hope you're up for it. This is a team that deserves an epic crowd performance. Do work.