After Notre Dame dropped their 3rd straight road ACC game in Tallahassee, Jack Nolan and Colin Falls discussed the similarities between this season and the '05/'06 campaign. Saturday afternoon's loss in Winston Salem only strengthened the sense of history repeating itself. Once again, the Irish found themselves in a dogfight down to the bitter end, and once again, every break and bounce went the other way. After losing 58-65 to Wake Forest, the Irish now find themselves in a 2-5 hole and in a position to only hope for a miracle in Greensboro to save what has been a profoundly disappointing season.
This was an interesting game with a very dynamic ebb and flow. It was far closer than the final score indicates, as the Irish actually lead 54-53 with two minutes remaining in the game. One the one hand, you have to give Mike Brey's shorthanded squad credit for being in the game. Austin Burgett had been coming on, but is now sidelined as they continue to diagnose the cardiac irregularity he suffered vs. FSU, and Tom Knight finally returned to the line-up, needing to play his way in to game shape. On the other hand, you have to wonder how Notre Dame struggles so mightily in close late-game situations. Once again, Mike Brey and his staff opened themselves up to criticism of their game management.
Watching the game live, it was pretty clear that Wake had an emotional edge over the Irish. The intensity shown by Wake's Devin Thomas was unmatched by anyone in an Irish uniform. Thomas was an interesting study in how this game went. Guarded by a combination of Garrick Sherman, Tom Knight, and Zach Auguste, Thomas hit his first 10 shots from the floor. He had a combination of out muscling and outpacing his defender allowing him to score almost at will. Thankfully, the Deamon Deacons only rode this matchup for 21 points, because it seemed Thomas could have had more. Thomas's lone miss came with a little under four minutes left in the game, when Mike Brey finally assigned his best defender, Pat Connaughton, to stop the Wake sophomore.
It seemed the Irish were communicating much more deliberately and consistently on defense, but yet again, the Irish find themselves giving up another nearly 50% shooting night to their opponent. To paraphrase Coach Wooden, you can have bad shooting nights, but you should never have an off defensive night. I know the loss of Burgett hurts the depth and defensive intensity of the team, but in ACC play, the Irish are giving up a nearly 52% effective field goal percentage. It is easy to talk about cold shooting, poor officiating, and maddening coaching decisions, but if you can't man up and defend, you can't win. Being 247th in the country in defensive eFG % is a recipe for disaster.
If you're searching for the missing link for this team, it appears to be defensive intensity. It makes you appreciate the role guys like Jack Cooley, Ben Hansbrough, Luke Harangody (at least, prior to his senior year), and Ryan Humphrey played for Mike Brey in the past. This year's edition of the Fighting Irish are missing that "refuse to lose" defender and rebounder that sets a tone of defensive intensity. The Irish rarely win any 50/50 loose balls. In a word, they're just a little soft.
Garrick Sherman is a guy who gets a lot of heat when the "soft" descriptor comes out. Yes, the senior from Ohio had another difficult defensive night, but he was hampered by 4 fouls, 2 of which looked just ridiculous in replay. Despite the defensive struggles, Sherman turned in a gutty performance on the offensive end and kept the Irish in the game with 2 late post buckets. It would have been fantastic to see him step up and knock down both FT's with 2:24 left and the game tied, but he was 4-5 for the night from the line, so that's just picking nits. Overall, Sherman shot over 50% from the floor and pulled down 5 defensive boards with only a single turnover in 32 minutes of play. You can't hang this loss on Sherman's effort.
My man, 4pointshooter, likes to use a GPA analogy for this team. Between Sherman, Eric Atkins, and Pat Connaughton, they need at least a 3.0 GPA to win. We can survive one of them having a C night if another has a solid A, but if more than one are off their game, the Irish are in big trouble. Once again, Pat Connaughton started the game ice cold, and Pat didn't hit his first basket until the 2nd half. The Irish managed to go over 6 minutes in the first half without scoring a single point. It was only a personal 5-0 run by Eric Atkins to close the half that kept the Irish close and cut the Wake lead to 4 at halftime. Connaughton put a tremendous effort in to his all around game, and there's no way to hang this loss on Pat. However, the Irish aren't going to win many with him going 4-14 from the floor with only 1-7 from behind the arc. Atkins had some "wow" moments on the offensive end, and dropped a team high 6 dimes, but he finished 6-14 from the floor and a dismal 1-5 from deep. Two of twelve from 3 isn't going to cut it for these veteran leaders. Moreover, Atkins got lost in defensive transition several times as Wake pushed the ball for easy layups. Two of the hallmarks of good Mike Brey teams have been offensive efficiency and defensive transition. Neither was on display in Winston Salem. The Irish ended the night with 8 assists on 24 made FG's. That's a big reason the Irish only mustered 39% shooting from the field, including a polar-vortex 12.5% from three.
Tom Knight made a solid return with a 4-4 performance from the field. The senior forward had a couple of key put-backs and gutted out 17 minutes in his first action back. Zach Auguste got the start, drained his first 2 FT's after a strong post move, but only got 18 minutes of run on the day. Apparently the staff can't live with the sophomore turning the ball over, as his 3 turnovers must be what limits his playing time. Freshman V.J. Beachem struggled mightily when he was forced in to action with Sherman's foul trouble. He looked very raw, struggling to make clean catches on the offensive end, and getting a little lost on the defensive end. Demetrius Jackson only saw 22 minutes of action, a touch below his 24 minute average. DJ lacked a lot of the offensive aggressiveness Irish fans hope to see. He did make a key play down the stretch, taking the ball strong to the rim just before the under-4 media stoppage. Unfortunately, he only converted 1 of 2 key free throws, thus continuing another frustrating theme of the season. Other than a few small spurts, the freshman continues to struggle to carve out a high-impact contribution to match his high-potenial athleticism and talent. I'd love to see DJ pick up the other team's point guard in man defenses. This would give Atkins some rest and avoid giving up some of the easier transition baskets Wake was able to exploit on Saturday. Steve Vasturia saw big minutes in Winston Salem; nearly double his 16 minute average. Outside Purcell Pavillion, Vasturia has struggled to find his stroke. He was 1-7 on the game and 0-3 from deep. This is a really difficult time of year for freshmen, and no one should be shocked this talented trio is struggling right now. Our best hope is that the struggle builds up their experience without tearing down their confidence.
Once again, Mike Brey and his staff left themselves open to criticism from Irish fans with their late game management. With a little over 5 minutes to play in the game, Connaughton finishes a great drive and converts the 3 point play to cut the Wake lead to 1. The Irish get a stop on the following trip as WF misses a 3 and Vasturia grabs a key rebound. The Irish burn some clock, but Vasturia misses badly on an open 3. Thankfully, the Irish rebound the ball, and the coaching staff calls a time out just as Atkins is turning the corner on a promising screen & roll. Yes, that was a key possession, but the Irish were about to go into the under-4 media timeout anyway and they took that timeout very early in the shot clock. On its own, that wouldn't be a big deal, and DJ's strong drive came out of that possession, which tied the game and kept a 10-2 run going. After finally switching Connaughton on to Thomas - a long overdue move - the Irish get another stop and huge defensive rebound. Notre Dame wisely went into more of a burn look and Vastuira comes up with a huge offensive board off a Sherman miss. Again, the Notre Dame bench calls timeout with the game tied and 2:46 remaining- a very wise move to set up such a critical possession. Unfortunately, this is where things started to unwind. After getting stuck late in the shot clock on the subsequent possession, Notre Dame is forced to burn their final timeout with only 4 seconds on the shot clock (should have been looked at and reset back to 6 seconds, but hey, this is ND in the ACC). The Irish caught a break with Sherman getting fouled on a blow to the head on the ensuing inbound play. Sherman hit 1 of 2 to put the Irish up 1, but 30 seconds later, Wake makes a layup and the Irish would never lead again. Sherman did everything he could to keep the Irish in striking distance, hitting 2 key post moves late, but the Irish wasted precious seconds waiting to foul on the subsequent defensive possessions and managed to foul the Deamon Deacon's best FT shooter who went a cool 4-4 down the stretch. Without any time outs to work sets or strategy, once again, the Irish saw Atkins throw up an ill-advised 3 when a quick two and another foul was a perfectly viable strategy. After a phantom foul on Vasturia as Sherman was being shoved in the back, the game was over. With multiple freshmen playing key roles, I believe the coaching staff always has to keep one TO in their pocket, and once again, Brey burned a few questionable ones, and once again, the Irish look foolish in late game situations. UND.com and WatchND.tv did not have any post-game comments from the Irish Head Coach or his staff.
One other interesting note: the Irish have had 3 players foul out in ACC play, but have yet to have an opponent's player disqualified. The Irish are also being whistled for almost 3 more fouls per game than their ACC opponents. Opponents have shot an additional 32 free throw attempts in Notre Dame's 7 ACC games.
In the end, it all adds up to falling short on the road again. I don't think any of us saw this coming in Notre Dame's inaugural ACC campaign, but let's hope they can find a way to salvage some respectability and build a base for future growth. For me, that growth has to start with some defensive intensity. I know this team lacks the visible rah-rah personality, but some more grit on the defensive end of the floor would go a long way to climb out of that 247th ranking in defensive eFG percentage and make the Irish less dependent on their own shooting on a game-in-game-out basis.
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