Sporting a fancy new #16 ranking, and playing in a near empty gym, you couldn't blame Mike Brey's Fighting Irish squad for a little letdown after their rousing victory in Indianapolis on Saturday. That was the opportunity open to the Northern Illinois Huskies as they visited Notre Dame Monday evening. Mark Montgomery's upset-minded team came in to the game ranked 259th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings and only .500 on the season.
Zach Auguste opened the game with a 2 handed dunk on the screen and roll with Demetrius Jackson in the first 15 seconds. Despite some easy early baskets, the Irish continued to struggle in the early parts of the first half, allowing the overmatched Huskies to hang around by grabbing a few offensive rebounds and finishing inside while knocking down a few timely threes. At the second media timeout in the first half, the game was tied at 16. Later in the first half, the Irish finally opened up a double figure working margin. They were then able to extend that margin as Brey's squad simply wore down NIU and came away with the 91-66 win.
This Notre Dame team seems to have a switch they can flip. Much like a good pro team, they can put a run on their opponent by turning up the defensive intensity and finding a few transition buckets. Once the dunks start rolling...
Then, suddenly the defensive intensity picks up and games go from fairly close in the early stages of the first half to laughers by the final buzzer. Monday, was no exception. Once again, Brey was able to empty the entire bench up 20+ late.
One of the most encouraging signs for the Irish came with about six minutes remaining in the first half when V.J. Beachem returned to the Notre Dame line-up after sitting several weeks with his plantar fascia tear. Beachem had the benefit of an early trip to the line and seeing two go through the net early. He also hit 2 of his 3 attempts from behind the arc to finish with eight points in eleven minutes. Coach Brey said he was very happy with Beachem's aggression on the evening, and getting V.J. back before Christmas gets him some game action and a bunch of practices before ACC play begins.
Four Factors Analysis
Notre Dame continued to show why they're the best shooting team in the nation, finishing at a 70% eFG percentage while only allowing the cold shooting Huskies only 47% eFG percentage.
The Huskies prevailed in the turnover battle, coughing it up only 10 times to 11 for Notre Dame
Notre Dame managed the glass well again, earning a 39% OREB rate to NIU's 36% and prevailed in the overall rebounding numbers with 36 total to NIU's 30.
The Irish were 0.34 FTA/FGA rate, and despite some protesting from Montgomery, the Huskies managed 0.42 FTA/FGA on the evening.
When you can deliver a +23 point shooting advantage, and keep the other numbers close, you're going to blow people out and get your bench guys a lot of minutes.
It was great to see the aforementioned Beachem back, but the word of the night was "balance." The Irish had all 5 starters in double figures, led by Pat Connaughton's 21 points on 8-12 shooting and 5-9 from behind the arc. In case you don't know, Pat also plays baseball. The senior also pulled down 10 rebounds, 9 of them on the defensive side. It was an incredibly productive 31 points for the Irish captain.
Demetrius Jackson continued his run of outstanding, explosive play, stuffing the stat sheet with 16 points, 1 rebound, 5 assists, 4 steals and a block. The lone smudges on the sophomore's performance were his 4 turnovers in 31 minutes of play and a sub-par 3-6 from the line.
Zach Auguste managed 16 points in an incredibly efficient 20 minutes. The junior big man was 7-7 from the floor and pulled down 8 rebounds, but only 3 of those were on the defensive end. Once again, he looked active on the screen and roll and very dangerous on the offensive end.
Mister everything, senior Jerian Grant, didn't have a good shooting night, but managed to do a lot of other very valuable work for the Irish, racking up 6 assists and going a very solid 6-7 from the line.
Sophomore Steve Vasturia shot the ball well (4-8), rebounded outstanding (6 DREB), and picked up an assist and 2 steals. That's a great story on its own, but Vasturia's contribution seems to go beyond what is measured on the box score. Whether it is diving on a loose ball to pick up a transition opportunity or making a number of "hockey assist" passes, he makes a ton of what coaches call "winning plays."
Among the rest of the guys, Austin Torres put in 13 solid minutes with perfect shooting and 4 rebounds. Freshman Martinas Gebben saw 8 minutes of action and looks like a guy ready for the Christmas break. He's still struggling on perimeter screens and found himself in a few difficult situations with the ball. Austin Burgett was the only other guy to see competitive time in this game and struggled to create an impact, in his small run.
The Irish get 8 days off for their Christmas break before resuming action on December 30th in their final non-conference test at home vs. Hartford.
Rebounding and interior defense continue to be an item to watch. They're never going to be great; the question remains whether or not they limit the ceiling for this team, or can the efficient offense and perimeter ball pressure make up for some deficiencies inside.
After switching everything on the perimeter in the first half, it was clear Brey wanted his guys to try to stay in their match-up's more in the second half, and that seemed to increase the intensity of the Irish defense as the game wore on. I'm not sure it is any more or less effective tactically, but that focus and determination certainly raised the urgency and intensity levels for the entire squad.
I think NIU head coach, Mark Montgomery, said it best in his postgame comments:
"They're a good team. I thought both teams came out and fought. There's a reason why Notre Dame is in the top (16) in the country. I told Coach Brey that they're definitely going to hang a banner and have a heck of a season. They're just so deep, very unselfish, very good shooters. They spread you out. They're tough to guard and I thought we battled them for a half. The opportunity was great, but Notre Dame is just that good right now."