Note: This post was edited 1/20 to add the FIDM videos.
It has been a struggle, a grind, a challenge, a... help me out here, fishoutofwater. It has been tough. The 2013-2014 season hasn't been what anyone hoped for Notre Dame basketball, but in reality, there are a bunch of ACC teams, including some traditional powers, feeling the same way right now. On a night designed to honor one of the great Notre Dame coaches and personalities, Digger Phelps, the Irish needed to find a way to put the struggle behind them and win an important game at home. While beating the 167th ranked team (in Ken Pomeroy's rankings) on your home floor isn't the sort of thing that turns a season around, it certainly beats the hell out of the alternative.
It was a night that perfectly reflected the beauty and flaws of Notre Dame basketball. It was a night designed to honor the past. Richard (Digger) Phelps had name included in the ring of honor on the anniversary of his biggest victory. ESPN was set to air the FIDM special 88-1 later in the evening. There should have been a palatable sense of nostalgia and enthusiasm in the atmosphere in Purcell Pavilion, but from the TV, it was hard to find. Phelps' speech credited the incredible atmosphere of the ACC and the student body during Notre Dame upsets vs. Bill Cartwright's San Francisco team, and Bill Walton's UCLA. Sadly, the present didn't reflect that past. While the student section looked fairly full, the overall building was noticeably empty on the ESPN TV coverage, and the atmosphere sounded remarkably flat. Even Phelps' banner, which looks fabulous, provided some unintentional comedy when the fumbled PA announcement didn't align with the unveiling. At least on TV, the whole thing felt strange--I'd be curious if any of our commenters would be willing to share a first hand account.
On the court, there were moments of beauty interspersed with maddening moments of incompetence that largely explain the struggles of this Fighting Irish basketball team. The Irish opened the game with a textbook screen and roll on the right elbow. Garrick Sherman set a good screen, Eric Atkins came off it aggressively and found Sherman rolling to the hole. It was a thing of beauty, like rare artwork - because it was never to be seen again. They never went back to it. Sadly, it could have been the one decent play Sherman made the whole night. The senior big man struggled again with 3 credited turnovers, almost no post defense vs. Cadarian Raines (8-15 shooting for 22 pts), only 2 defensive rebounds, and 3-7 "shooting" from the floor. Shooting gets the quote treatment because many of those attempts looked more like "rim throws" than actual shots. It is really frustrating seeing one of the biggest men on the floor continue to look to the officials to bail him out. His near turnover at the end of the game would have been a killer, but thankfully, Notre Dame was saved by the possession arrow. According to statsheet.com, Sherman's +/- was -10 in a 7 point ND win. Pile that on to his -15 in ND's 8 point loss to Maryland, and it looks like it is time for Brey to look for alternatives.
Most rational observers acknowledge that the loss of Jerian Grant means the Irish can only go as far as the play of Sehrman, Eric Atkins, and Pat Connaughton will take them. The experience of this team has to help them through, and right now, neither senior is getting it done. Atkins had a strong floor game with 2 steals and 4 assists, but shot only 5-16 from the field, including a dismal 1-8 form behind the arc. Atkins also missed another key FT late. I even scribbled in my game notes, "Atkins may shoot us out of this one." I understand he has to be aggressive, but when the 3 isn't falling, he's got to be better with his selection and more willing to get to the rim as he did against Duke.
Connaughton was the rock for Notre Dame tonight. With Sherman ineffective, and Tom Knight still unavailable, head coach Mike Brey used a lot of smaller line-up's, including several where Connaughton was asked to guard the post against much bigger opposition. Pat did his job on the defensive end and collected a team-high 6 defensive rebounds. Connaughton's line on the night shows his value - 21 pts on 7-14 shooting (4-9 from 3), 8 boards, 3 assists, a steal, and only 1 foul in 38 minutes. Great night for a pitcher.
Youth was served tonight. Steve Vasturia logged 30 minutes, Demetrius Jackson 22, and V.J. Beachem 11. The more I see Vasturia, the more I like the freshman's confidence and court awareness. He isn't shy with his shot, and he led a perfect fast break as ND tried to stem the tide in the 2nd half. Beachem's athleticism is apparent on the floor, but his lack of strength and experience are also pretty evident. Jackson showed flashes again tonight. He hit a gorgeous jumper off a ball screen to close the first half, and was cash money from the FT line late. Jackson also made a gorgeous left handed finish on the break pictured above, with the and-1 for good measure. He's far from dominant right now, but the future is certainly bright for DJ.
If Notre Dame is going to start trending in the right direction and get competitive in the middle tier of the ACC, they're going to need better play out of their bigs. There was a sequence in the 2nd half that was a perfect representation of the problem. Sherman comes out after giving up an offensive rebound on a free throw to give VT a 4 point trip. Zach Auguste comes in and makes a great deflection. Auguste takes the ball up the court and scores, plus the foul. At this point, I write in my notes, "Why does Sherman play?!?!" Of course, 2 trips later, Auguste makes a bad turnover on an errant pass, gets pulled and Sherman comes back in. On that next trip, Sherman throws one in the general direction of the rim hoping for a foul, then ends up fouling the VT player after they grab the "rebound." Notre Dame's big men don't need to be dominant, but they need to be competent. Tonight, Brey finally had it with Sherman, and he only got 19 minutes on the floor. Auguste only saw 11 minutes, but I think that number has to go up. We'll see if Brey is more willing to ride the bad with the good with the sophomore big man. Without either, Brey ran some interesting small line-up's including Eric Katenda's first action to close the first half. Austin Burgett got the start for Brey and played 26 minutes. Burgett only scored 2 points, and fouled out, but his +/- was +10. It isn't always pretty, but Burgett makes a lot of small winning plays and is a much better defender than Sherman and Auguste right now.
The bad news is: ND has problems. The good news is: we get a break from them for a little bit. It wasn't a pretty game, but Mike Brey's squad wasn't looking for style points. They notched an important home win in the ACC, and hopefully have something to build on as they leave chilly South Bend for a little time in sunny Florida.
Brey Press Conference