Stop me if you've heard this one before...
There's a Notre Dame team that looks like it could be darn good on paper. They need a few things to fall in to place, but last year's results seem to indicate there's a good nucleus of talent and potent newcomers poised to make a good run this year. Of course, a lot is going to depend on a certain senior at a critical position showing some progress vs. the frustrating play they demonstrated earlier in their career.
TFR, meet GFS. Much like the football season saw far too many "Tommy, No!" moments, Wednesday night's contest, hosting the Bison of North Dakota State, contained far to many "Darnit Sherman!" moments for ND to be successful.
Garrick Sherman scored 10 points on 3-9 shooting from the field. Despite being the tallest man on the floor, he had several attempts blocked. While he did manage 10 rebounds, they were offset by his 4 turnovers. To add insult to injury, his main defensive assignment, NDSU's Marshall Bjorklund scored 26 on 11-14 shooting with a single turnover. As frustrating as it must have been to see Bjorklund continuously drag his pivot foot and get away with it, Sherman has to be able to put up at least some defensive resistance against a 6'8" forward. ACC post men will be licking their chops after this one.
I wanted to believe that Sherman was going to have the "great senior year" Mike Brey talked about before the season, and I also know that there's a lot of time left, but the skeptic in me is starting to wonder if the light will ever come on for a guy who has flashes of brilliance interspersed with maddening spells of soft, careless play.
Speaking of mixing brilliance with maddening spells, Jerian Grant also struggled mightily. Despite putting up excellent numbers to date, Grant didn't make a single field goal Wednesday night. He went 0-5 from the field and managed a single rebound in the entire game. Grant managed 9 points from the line on 9-11 FT shooting, but this was far from an All-American performance from the Irish guard. He did have a masterful pass to Connaughton for a gorgeous finish, but on one offensive possession in the second half, I watched Grant stand within about a 9 square foot portion of the floor, on the right wing, for an entire 20 second possession. He didn't cut through, he didn't set a screen, he didn't v-cut to demand the ball. It was the perfect representation of the evening. The offense was too static, too willing to settle for contested jumpers and unwilling to move without the ball. I was shocked to see the box score list 16 ND assists on 20 made FG. Most of those were in draw/kick scenarios, because watching the game, you didn't get the impression this was an efficient offensive performance.
I read a great article in Football Outsiders earlier this week, and this paragraph caught my eye:
Offense is more consistent from year to year than defense, and offensive performance is easier to project than defensive performance. Special teams is less consistent than either.
Nobody in the NFL understands this concept better than Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian. Both the Super Bowl champion Colts and the four-time AFC champion Buffalo Bills of the early 1990s were built around the idea that if you put together an offense that can dominate the league year after year, eventually you will luck into a year where good health and a few smart decisions will give you a defense good enough to win a championship. (As the Colts learned in January 2007, you don't even need a year, just four weeks.) Even the New England Patriots, who are led by a defense-first head coach in Bill Belichick, have been more consistent on offense than on defense since they began their run of success in 2001.
This is remarkable insight, and I think Coach Brian Kelly approaches football this way. I know Mike Brey looks at basketball in a very similar light. Going in to the BigEast, he found the right combination to let Notre Dame compete: Find smart, good-shooting, great-passing, compatible guys and put them in a loose system with good spacing. We might not be able to stop you consistently, but we we'll beat you with maniacal offensive efficiency that will drive you nuts. No turnovers, tons of assists and really high effective field goal percentage made the Irish a BigEast contender.
Tonight was the perfect example of how the air can come out of that balloon when you're playing 4 times in 8 nights. Once again, Purcell Pavillion had the atmosphere of the Sacred Heart Basilica, and on tired legs, the Irish turned the ball over 8 times, and shot a measly 36% from the field. Notre Dame was content to huck 29 threes, making only 9. Notre Dame was ranked 30th in the country in eFG coming in to this game at 55.7%, but regressed to 44% vs. the Bison.
Combine rough shooting with giving up a 56% eFG to your opponent, and you aren't going to win many. The only thing that kept the Irish in the game was the free throw line. Those of you looking for silver linings: the Irish put in a solid 20-25 performance from the stripe to stay in the game.
It was an odd night (capped off by some unfortunate football news). I'm sure many ND hoops fans, like myself, wonder where Zach Auguste has gone. Yet another DNP for the big man, on a night where his defensive energy could have paid big dividends instead of watching Sherman give up an 11-14 shooting night to the guy he was guarding. Demetrius Jackson continues to develop and opened the game wonderfully with sharp shooting and stifling defense, but DJ had a few poor calls go against him and found himself watching a big chunk of the 2nd half. Austin Burgett once again found himself part of a first half run that saw the Irish take the lead back, but once again played very sparingly in the second half. Brey ran some odd lineups, including the ultra-small look with Eric Atkins, Demetrius Jackson, Jerian Grant, Pat Connaughton, and Austin Burgett. Two "stretch 4's" playing in the front court is a new trick. It wasn't terribly effective, but we'll have to see where Brey takes all of this. I get the impression the rotation far from decided at this point in the season.
Don't sleep on NDSU, the Bison will be tough in the Summit League and could easily be dancing in March. With 2 home losses to mid-major programs, the question Irish fans have to now start asking: will we? It is far too early in the season to panic, but the difficulty level cranks up from here with contests vs. Indiana and Ohio State (who was destroying Bryant as I wrote this) right around the corner.