If Saturday's victory over Duke signaled Notre Dame Basketball's competitive arrival into the ACC, Tuesday's loss to a much less highly-regarded North Carolina State team served as a stone-cold reminder that life in the ACC isn't going to be easy. During the ACC media week, Irish head coach, Mike Brey emphasized the importance of winning at home in the new league. Sadly, that message didn't make it through to his team, or to Notre Dame fans on campus on Tuesday night.
Playing in front of a very small, lifeless crowd, Notre Dame struggled to clear their defensive boards, committed loose turnovers, and never found a way to get atop an NC State team that seemed intent to shoot Notre Dame back in to the game with some ill-advised 3's. In what devolved into an ugly 2nd half, Notre Dame found themselves on the wrong end of their 2nd ACC game.
If there's a bright spot in Tuesday's loss, it would have to be the performance of Garrick Sherman. Yes, there were a few maddening turnovers and he struggled at times against a bigger defender, but his effort was consistent. He was active on the defensive boards and managed to pull down 18 total rebounds on the night. Now, if we could help him eliminate that ridiculous attempt at a power dribble he seems to overuse at the rim, he'd be ready to take the next step. Nonetheless, you have to admire the big man's effort. We'd love to see more efficiency than 9-19 shooting and 2 turnovers, but 13 defensive boards is a good night's work.
After learning he was named the ACC Newcomer of the Week, Steve Vasturia looked like a freshman vs. the Wolfpack. Vasturia came on the floor as the first sub with a great bounce to his step, but he was quickly beat in a man-to-man defensive scenario, and later committed two of the 11 Irish turnovers. With any freshman, you have to take the good with the bad, and late in the game, Vasturia hit a huge 3. On the subsequent trip, he had a chance to secure a ball on the defensive end, but instead of calling time out in the scramble, Vasturia tried to get the ball to Sherman, who ended up tumbling across the sideline, giving Mark Gottfried squad a valuable extra late-game possession.
Vasturia's partner in ACC honors was 2-time ACC Player of the Week, Eric Atkins also vacillated between brilliance and struggles. In the first half, Atkins change of pace with the ball in his hands looked masterful, and he was able to get to the rim frequently. As State made their adjustments, and he ended the game shooting only 5-15 from the floor.
From a coaching perspective, I was shocked Notre Dame didn't attack the soft pressure NC State was using the entire night. With Notre Dame's ball handlers and bigs who can pass, that 1-2-2 look from State was ripe for the picking. If you can break down that defense, you can frequently attack 3 on 2 as soon as you get behind the point of the defense. ND looked good the very few times they focused on early offense and attacked before or as NC State came out of the 3/4 pressure and switched into their half-court man look. I couldn't figure out why Brey didn't turn the guys loose to knock State out of that defensive look. It was working for them, so Gottfried stuck with it the whole way. They managed to hold Notre Dame to just 41% shooting from the field (29% from 3) and turned ND over 11 times. If you’re Brey, you’ve got to try something different, and I would have loved to see the Irish push pace and attack that soft pressure early.
This was such an odd game. You can certainly expect a bit of a letdown after the emotional victory over Duke on Saturday, but with veteran leadership, and an experienced coach, you'd hope this team would be above such a drop off. Clearly, they didn't get much help from the campus community. I'm sure the cold played a significant role in keeping the crowds down, but the atmosphere was so lethargic that ACC Network color commentator Mike Gminski noted it during the last few minutes of the telecast. It is hard to win games in an elite basketball conference, and it is unfortunate how little support this team gets on campus. Only 7,721 in the stands is straight-up pathetic.
As Alstein pointed out previously, this is a critical stretch for a team looking to find its way into the top 4-5 of the ACC and find a bid in March. They needed to leverage the momentum from the Duke win into a run through some of the lower-tier teams before the "meat" of the ACC schedule. A loss like this is a major setback. The good news is that we're tied with conference powers like Duke and UNC, but to really contend, the Irish need to take care of business against teams like the Wolfpack. Mike Brey and his team are going to have to take a look at how to maintain energy and take better care of the ball before their first ACC road contest at Georgia Tech.