Notre Dame Basketball Statistical Analysis - Part 3

The Irish student section pouring over stat sheets - Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

In part 1 of our statistical break-down of Notre Dame's basketball season, we examined the "Four Factors for Basketball Success" across each of Notre Dame's first 7 ACC games. In part 2, we looked at how the 4 factors added up through first half of ND's ACC season vs. some of the top competition in the league. Now, in part 3, we'll look underneath some of those 4 factors numbers to see what might be driving them and highlight individual player contributions.

I have no doubt that every Irish player, coach and staff member would agree this has been a challenging season. Along with fans, everyone knew it was a challenging non-conference slate and there are always a lot of factors to consider when switching leagues. Throw in some difficult circumstances with academic irregularities, transfers, narrow losses, and challenging injuries, and teams are going to struggle. To their credit, the Irish keep fighting, but they're consistently on the wrong end.

We've established the "Four Factors of Basketball Success" in the first two parts of this series. Now, let's dig a little deeper to find some of the "numbers behind the numbers" and identify where individual contributions are behind some of the challenges. Again, I'm a big believer that every guy who laces it up for Notre Dame deserves our respect and that each of them gives their full effort. Anything that comes across of criticism is not an attack on the young man, but simply a statistical look at their on-court performance.

Shoot the Ball Well

As we discussed, this stat isn't always about how well you shoot, it is also about defending well. We can all agree that the primary issue with this edition of Irish basketball is their ability to defend. In the Virginia recap, we noted over the last four games, the Irish had allowed opponents to shoot an average of almost 10 percentage points better than their conference average.

Outside of steals and blocks (not Irish strengths) we don't have access to a ton of defensive stats, but let me throw some food for thought out there. The best Irish defender, Pat Connaughton leads the team at nearly 38 minutes per game in conference play. Eric Atkins has played 1 minute less than Pat in conference play, and Garrick Sherman is playing 30 minutes per ACC game. We all know that playing guys huge minutes is a Mike Brey calling card, but you have to wonder if the legs aren't starting to go, especially when these veterans are forced to carry so much of the offensive load. Steve Vasturia is actually 2 minutes ahead of Demetrius Jackson for the 4th slot in playing time. Like many young players, Vasturia has often struggled to stay in front of the ball on defense.

In part 2, we saw that Notre Dame's 49.3% eFG is in line with their last season in BigEast play, and not that far off their historic average. It bears repeating one more time: while it might feel like the Irish are struggling from the field, the problem is the defense. That being said, we knew this team was going to have to be ruthlessly efficient on the offensive end this year to make up for potential rebounding issues and the loss of Jack Cooley. Notre Dame's 49.3% eFG is only good for 6th in the conference, so there's certainly room for improvement, particularly on a team that is known to have some pretty good shooters. One of the numbers-behind-the-numbers is the assist percentage. Traditionally, successful Notre Dame teams in the Brey era share the ball extraordinarily well. That tends to show up in assist numbers. This year, in ACC play, the Irish are assisting on 51.2% of made FG's, a full point behind opponents. Looking at how that stacks up historically...

...we see that Notre Dame has had a huge drop off vs. their historical averages. The officiating emphasis on free flowing offense should have helped Notre Dame maintain, if not improve, this statistic. With so many young guys in the game, we're getting a lot of standing around out of the Irish, and we're not seeing the traditional pass-and-move basketball we've grown accustom to. Another reason this number is down is that Garrick Sherman leads the team with 53 FGM in conference games. Many of these baskets come off of slow-developing, multi-dribble post moves that are not scored as assists. Past Irish big men like Cooley and Luke Harangody were stronger, able to post deeper, and much more "catch, turn, and shoot" offensive players. Eric Atkins is 2nd in FGM in conference play. Half of the senior point man's FGA are from behind the 3 point line but two-thirds of his makes are 2 point FG's. He's scoring those 2 point FGs off the bounce, and therefore, fewer overall assists. The numbers show that the Irish are much better off with Atkins attacking and his 3 point attempts closer to 25% of his overall FGA's. Connaughton is right behind the two seniors with 97 FGM in ACC games. It isn't hard to imagine the junior forward's legs are starting to go a little. He's now dipped under 40% in total FG%. and is under 50% in eFG, well below the nearly 55% eFG he averaged in his previous 2 seasons.

One last note on shooting. The only Irish player making over 33% from 3 is freshman Demetrius Jackson. DJ is 5 of 10 in ACC play, but his 10 attempts put him well behind Connaughton's 57, Atkins' 48, Vasturia's 28, and Burgett's 14. Jackson's 2.1 three point attempts per 40 minutes played is woefully behind Atkins' 6.4, and Atkins is only shooting 29% from behind the arc. I'm sure I speak for many Irish fans when I say, "Let it fly!" to the former prep star.

Take Care of the Ball

This has been a Notre Dame strength for so long. Since part 2, a ridiculously bad performance vs. Virginia pushed the Irish turnover percentage in ACC play to 16.2. Again, this is slightly below the trend in ND's last few years of BigEast play, but it puts the Irish near the bottom of ACC teams in conference play. Notre Dame has a reputation for taking care of the ball, but obviously, they're not hanging on to it as well this season.

Let's use turnovers per 40 minutes played to normalize everyone's averages on the floor to help sort this out.

Player Turnovers per 40 minutes
Sherman 4.1
Atkins 2.5
Auguste 2.4
Jackson 2.3
Beachem 2.0
Vasturia 1.8
Connaughton 1.5
Burgett 1.0
Knight 0.8

Technically, Eric Katenda's 0 turnovers in 3 minutes played are tops on the team, but let's set that aside. A couple of things jump out. First, when your leading scorer turns the ball over at that kind of rate, you're going to struggle. These aren't the same kind of turnovers Notre Dame has suffered in the past. Sherman tends to turn it over in situations where he brings the ball down in post or offensive rebound situations. As guards scrape him and come away with live balls, Notre Dame is forced to react in transition. In prior years, most of these turnovers were deflected passes and or balls out of bounds while the Irish attempted to push and move the ball. I don't have live vs. dead ball turnover stats, but I'm guessing that number is up sharply this year - contributing to some of ND's defensive woes.

Second, I think Auguste gets a bad rap here. He doesn't handle the ball enough to be up around Atkins and Jackson in this department, so he has to clean up his game, but he turns it over at a much lower rate than Sherman. For some reason, Auguste has been much quicker to get the hook after a turnover than Sherman. Much of that is due to Sherman putting in 21 points per 40 minutes played to Auguste's 16. However, if Sherman is giving away 2 more possessions, it seems to be a wash between the 2 big men.

Finally, for those wondering, Atkins 2.5 is pretty much in line with the 2.2 and 2.1 per game he's averaged over the previous 2 years where he was playing essentially 40 minutes per game in conference play. Given his need to generate offense for this team, that small jump is not terribly surprising.

Manage the Offensive Boards

Let's look at this as a blended statistic. If we look at overall rebounding effectiveness for a team and individuals, we should start to see some patterns emerge that might explain a few things. As we know, this has been a mild Irish advantage in a year where we presumed the worst going in to the season. This is partially driven by teams shooting the lights out against us, thus reducing the overall importance of this factor.

I consider Charles Barkley one of the greatest rebounders of all time. According to NBA.com, Sir Charles averaged 4.0 offensive and 7.7 defensive rebounds per game in his 15 year career. Dennis Rodman pulled down 4.8 offensive boards per game and 8.4 on the defensive glass. This nearly 1:2 ratio of offensive to defensive boards is a pretty good indicator of someone who has the technique and effort level to be considered a quality rebounder. In his best sophomore and junior years, Luke Harangody was right around 1:2. Garrick Sherman is currently rebounding the ball at about a 2:3 rate. Of his 9.1 RPG, 3.6 are on the offensive end, and 5.5 are on the defensive end. This number has sharply improved over the last 2 games. Prior to Wake Forest game, the senior from Ohio had 26 offensive boards, to only 34 offensive boards, closer to a 3:4 ratio. Sherman is a smart guy, able to effectively get on the offensive glass, but he lacks the physical presence and intensity to really protect the defensive glass by boxing out opponents. The volume of 2-3 zone the Irish have been forced to use this year has also made boxing out a challenge for the ND bigs. Wake didn't really crash the boards, and UVa seemed to make everything they put up, so it makes sense his ratio improved in those 2 contests.

Be Effective from the Line

As we noted in part 2, the Irish have experienced a real drop off in what was historically a strength. I was hoping to dig in to this stat and uncover the grand conspiracy headed by the Karl Hess and his love for Duke and Carolina, but in the 3 ND games he's worked this year, the Irish have had a FT rate advantage in 2. The real problem is we're sending opponents to the line on 10% more of their possessions and we're getting there ourselves on 5% less of our own possessions.

In terms of sending teams to the line, ND opponents have attempted 154 FT's on 139 ND fouls. ND has attempted 120 FT's on 120 opponent fouls. The 0.1 FTA/foul difference is pretty insignificant, but would indicate that the Irish, in their packed-in zone are more likely to foul a shooter than to be fouled on their own shot attempt. The clear leaders in ACC FT rate are the Pitt Panthers. They've shot 223 FT's on 150 opponent fouls for a 1.49 FTA/foul ratio. Panther opponents have tried 157 FTs on 140 Pitt fouls (1.12). This is a strong indicator that the Panthers are taking the ball to the hole and getting fouled in the act at a much higher rate than ND or Pitt's opponents. The Irish would be well served to look to force the issue on offense and get some trips to the line.

However, when you get to the line, you have to convert. This season, the Irish are shooting 65% from the line in conference games.

You can clearly see this is below the historical rate of 70-75%. In ACC play, Sherman and Atkins have taken 51 FT attempts, compared to 69 by the balance of the roster. Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson, the only 75%+ FT shooters on the team, have attempted a combined 34 FT's. Sherman is converting at 68% and Atkins at 65%. For comparison, in BigEast play last year, Cooley and Grant attempted 157 of the team's 312 FT's and both converted above 71%. We can see the Pareto principle in these numbers. Just getting those two guys up over 75% would be enough to get FT shooting back to a strength.

Summing it All Up

If you've stuck with me through this series (first, you're probably not CSN, and) you already knew the Irish were struggling, and you likely identified the Irish defense as the primary driver behind the disappointing entry into the ACC. My goal in this series was twofold:

  1. Satisfy the engineer in me. When you see something wrong, you want to identify root cause and get to fixing it.
  2. Use a quantitative analysis to drill down and validate or invalidate assumptions about performance in a way that lets OFD continue to be a great source for rational discussion of Irish athletics.
I hope you enjoyed the series and found it informative. I'd absolutely love feedback from the OFD community. Would you like to see more of this sort of content? Are there things we can do to improve the presentation of the material? Would you prefer we just shout "FIRE BREY" instead? Please leave your thoughts in the comments.
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