About halfway through the first half, I was framing this post up in my mind as our inability to run Duke off the 3 point line. At halftime, I was mentally composing paragraphs on how an incompetent clock operation caused a turning point. Early in the second half, I was expecting to post a diatribe about the importance of free throw shooting in college basketball. Late in the second half, I started preparing my thoughts on another late game disappointment.
Yet here we are. Welcome to 2014 Irish fans, and welcome to the ACC. In the end, Mike Brey's team showed mental toughness, defensive mettle, and fighting spirit to send the 7th ranked Blue Devils back to Durham 0-1.
In my interview with Duke blogger David Aldridge, I pointed out Coach K wasn't all that welcoming towards the Irish, and I'm guessing his first trip to South Bend didn't help his mood. I joked the Coach K must rule the ACC with an iron fist to get this game scheduled before classes started back up for 2nd semester. Keeping the atmosphere in the JACC serene sounded like a good way to avoid the fate of other top 10 squads that have walked into South Bend to suffer upsets at the hands of the Irish. It certainly wan't an atmosphere on par with the Syracuse game from 2012, but Mike Brey's squad delivered a stirring result just the same. With the win, Brey improved to 12-6 vs. top 10 teams at home.
This isn't the first time Mike Brey has faced an unexpected absence of a key contributor, but Irish fans could have been excused for being more than a little bit pessimistic coming in to this first ACC season. Home losses vs. Indiana State and North Dakota State were certainly cause for alarm, but Mike Brey showed some masterful flexibility with some previously unseen line-ups on the floor, and those men delivered against one of the most respected programs in the land.
The Irish opened in a 2-3 and started Eric Atkins, Demetrius Jackson, Pat Connaughton, Zach Auguste, and Garrick Sherman. Brey mixed his defenses, throwing in some man looks to balance the 2-3, but defending a team like Duke is an exercise in choices. In my interview with Aldridge, I speculated Brey might give super-freshman Jabari Parker his points and deny Duke a 2nd scoring option. It turned out to be exactly the opposite. The zone was able to frustrate the all-everything freshman. In man settings, you saw Auguste, Burgett and Connaughton all do wonderful jobs trying to stay in front of Parker. Notre Dame managed to hold Parker to 7 points and 2 turnovers on only 2-10 shooting from the floor.
Parker wasn't the issue, it was the 3 point line that kept Duke in the game. The Blue Devils hit 8-16 from behind the 3 point line in the first half. Rodney Hood finished the game 5-10 from downtown, and Quinn Cook was 3-5. Brey's team had a hard time keeping Duke from cashing in on the deep ball, but they dominated the paint. The Irish finished the first half with a +6 rebounding margin and a 22-6 scoring advantage in the paint. Duke ended the first half shooting only 6 of 18 from inside the line. The Irish chose to keep Duke in front of them and pray the three point barrage would subside at some point in the evening - thankfully it did.
Duke shot 4-12 from deep in the 2nd half. I wish there was some fancy analysis I could give you or deep advanced stat that would indicate how the Irish pulled this off, but the truth is, they packed the lane defensively and wouldn't give up easy baskets. They weathered the Duke storm and once their own offensive execution started clicking, Notre Dame erased a double digit lead and dug deep to get some critical stops.
It wasn't all perfect for Notre Dame. t remember thinking to myself when the Irish were down 7 that they had missed 7 free throws at that point. The Irish hit only 2-6 from the charity stripe in the first half, and ended the game at a brutal 54.2%. Had that game not gone our way, the 11 points left at the line would have been a critical story.
But it didn't go the other way, did it? It isn't 2013 anymore. There were some remarkably encouraging things in this victory. There were a few that jumped out, and a few more that were more subtle.
Parker, regarded by many, as the most NBA-ready prospect in college, was supposed to be the kind of athlete Notre Dame would struggle with, but it was Notre Dame producing the highlight plays of the evening. It started early with Tom Knight's dunk on a baseline out of bounds play, but it really got started with Austin Burgett's block of a Jabari Parker shot in the first half...
That seemed to be a play that helped the Irish believe they could compete. In the second half, Burgett made another big block, but it was Pat Connaughton filling up the highlight reel with impressive finishes at the rim:
Speaking of Burgett, he played 24 very solid minutes. He had only 2 points, but contributed 5 rebounds and 5 blocks. Burgett played a stretch of the 2nd half as the 5 man in a very small lineup that saw Atkins, Jackson Connaughton, V.J. Beachem, and Burgett on the floor together. I've griped about Brey's rotations for a long time and his short bench, but he emptied it tonight. 7 guys played over 15 minutes. Freshmen logged 58 minutes in the game, and Steve Vasturia made the most of his opportunity. He was 3-5 from deep and pulled in 4 boards in his 22 minutes. Brey used his chess pieces masterfully and showed just how bright the future of the program looks to be as Jackson, Vasturia and Beachem all picked up valuable experience.
Another knock on Brey's teams have been the lack of attacking and execution on offensive baseline out of bounds plays. That certainly wasn't the case today. Between Knight's dunk, Sherman's lay-up and Vasturia's 3, Mike Brey's team consistently executed under their own basket. The Irish ended the game with 18 assists on 30 made FG's. As contrast, the #7 Blue Devils assisted on only 8 of their 24FG's. Greg Anthony pointed out on the telecast that the Irish do a great job overcoming talent gaps with remarkable offensive execution. Tonight was ND at its finest. The off-the ball motion was a thing of beauty. In particular, Pat Connaughton, "put on a clinic" without the ball according to Brey. The notable exception to the almost flawless execution was letting Sherman catch a ball near half-court during the end of game situations. While the Dukies didn't turn Sherman over, they were able to foul him, and his miss could have been very damaging. That ball needs to be in Atkins' hands in that situation. In fact, Atkins 19 points and 11 assists make a solid case for the ball remaining in his hands as much as possible.
The other poor execution was on the part of the clock operators. Every Notre Dame home game this season has featured a timing malfunction. This game was no different, but against Duke, the officials decided to stop play right after Duke launched a jumper that ended up missing and Notre Dame clearly rebounded. The whistle gave Duke that possession back, and they scored a 3, and then got a stop on the other end, and hit another 3. That 6 point swing turned a 35-31 lead into a 35-37 halftime deficit. Previously, theses issues were benign, but tonight they cost ND a possession in a 50/50 officiating decision that didn't go ND's way. This needs to get fixed ASAP.
The Bottom Line
Raise your hand if you had ND missing half their free throws and relying on the high-flying Pat Connaughton dunk show to pull this one off.
Nonetheless, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are 1-0 in the ACC. In a night where the new entrants into the ACC went 3-0, Mike Brey put another impressive feather in his cap on the Purcell Pavillion floor with another top-10 win. Notre Dame showed the athleticism and team defensive philosophy to deliver a stunning win in the face of adversity after the crushing loss of Jerian Grant and the heartbreak of coughing up the OSU game. 2014 starts anew for the Fighting Irish. This is the kind of game you can build from. Young guys got some valuable minutes and sniffed success. Notre Dame's senior leaders were capable of pulling together at critical moments. If Notre Dame can be this flexible and dynamic while remaining efficient, this is a team that can grow in to something special.
Brey/Atkins Post-Game Interview
Brey Postgame Presser: