In addition to covering Irish hoops here at One Foot Down, I covered Brian Kelly's press conferences throughout the last football season. One of the things I came to truly appreciate about the Irish head football coach was his "little things" message. Kelly firmly believes that habitually doing the little things in the right way frequently adds up to winning. Win the little battles, and the big battles come. From the way his players arrange their lockers down to their execution on the field, Kelly preaches the importance of effort, focus, and attention to detail. Perhaps when he returns to South Bend from Pebble Beach, Irish head basketball coach, Mike Brey, should ask Kelly to come in and spend some time with the Irish basketball team.
For the first 12 minutes of Saturday afternoon's contest vs. Roy Williams' Tar Heels, Mike Brey's squad looked focus, prepared and poised to give North Carolina a game. The ACC home atmosphere was raucous, and the Irish managed to build a 9 point lead at 19-10 after a lovely Steve Vasturia 3 that followed Pat Connaughton's 3 on the prior trip. I remember thinking, "Wow. The Irish are 4-4 from 3 with 3 different guys making them. Let's just get into the under 8 media timeout with an 8'ish point lead." Within a minute, the Tar Heels had a 3 point trip after an offensive put-back off of a missed free throw. Connaughton coughs up the ball, the Tar Heels run out and score a layup and the lead is suddenly 4. By halftime, the Tarheels had a 4 point lead, and the boys in the Carolina blue ran the Irish out of the gym in the second half, cruising to an 11 point victory. For the final 28 minutes of the game, Notre Dame was outscored by 20 on their home floor.
In those first 12 minutes, the Irish played some phenomenal defense, holding the Tar Heels to only 10 points on 5-19 shooting. Not only that, the Irish had were shooting 7-11 themselves. There were the usual frustrating turnovers, but the guys were working hard to keep the more athletic Tar heels boxed out and off the glass. Austin Burgett had made his return to the lineup, and while there appeared to be some rust there, he brought great defensive energy and enthusiasm. Wisely, the Irish were content to let UNC chuck from the outside and stayed very compact in both their man and 2-3 looks.
Unfortunately, that's where the cracks started to show. It began with an incredibly odd inbounds play under Notre Dame's own basket. The ball ended up in Garrick Sherman's hands, almost 20 feet from the rim and near the sideline. Sherman was immediately trapped and had to burn a time out to retain possession. That wasn't the only time ND had problems inbounding from under their offensive basket with another turnover and several near-turnovers. The little things - they matter.
If you go back and watch the replay on ESPN3, you'll see Sherman boxing guys out in the first 5 minutes. It was, by far, the best stretch of basketball by the Irish big man all season. He was active on defense and boxing out, he was rolling aggressively on the pick and roll, scoring on a beautiful pocket-pass from Eric Atkins. Mike Brey, and his staff have tape to show the senior. That is how they want Sherman to play. Unfortunately, he couldn't sustain it, and was beat frequently on the offensive boards. The Irish gave up 15 offensive boards to UNC. Moreover, there were the usual rash 17 turnovers. The staff also has tape to show Sherman how frequently the Irish lose the ball when he dips the ball below his waist. He's got to play to his size to be effective. His 7-11 shooting performance is great, if the senior is doing his work on the boards and taking care of the ball.
Turnovers really did the Irish in. When they were able to get back and set a compact defense, they were largely able to contain the Tar Heels. However, Roy Williams' squad came up with 13 steals, meaning most of those Irish turnovers were live ball situations that got the high-flying UNC side out and running. After that 5-19 start, UNC went 22-42 the rest of the way. For a team that came in 11th in the conference in eFG at 47%, UNC held their average, but they did it by putting on a run-and-dunk show for most of the second half. The Irish couldn't hold a candle to the Tar Heels in the transition game, and were run up and down the Purcell Pavilion floor. Tom Knight kicked the ball around a few times, Sherman had his, and V.J. Beachem looked young with the ball. Taking care of the ball might not seem like a little thing, but out-of-bounds execution, and keeping that ball in good, strong offensive possession are the kind of things that you need to habitually get right.
No one would look at the Notre Dame roster, then the Tar Heel roster, and argue the North Carolina advantage in size and athleticism, although no less so than the Syracuse Orange presented a similar challenge to Mike Brey's team. Why then, was Saturday so different? Once again, the Irish defense started the game compact and active, but as guys got gassed, and as the live-ball turnovers created opportunities to run, the Irish looked worn while the Heels looked like a high flying track team. When you're at a deficit in athleticism, you absolutely need to be efficient. You need relentless focus on smart, efficient basketball. This version of the Fighting Irish, just doesn't have that gear. Seventeen turnovers won't get it done against anyone, and while 51% eFG isn't horrible shooting (almost 2 points better than their ACC average), it isn't good enough when you're giving up so many extra possessions.
When you're a good enough athlete to play big-time college basketball, it likely seems that cashing in your FT's is a "little thing" too. Once again, the Irish managed only 60% shooting from the line, however that included a key front-end miss by Sherman while the game was still in question and 2 makes by him when the game was no longer in doubt. Sixty percent is still well below what should be expected, and it wasn't only that they missed them, it was when they missed them too.
The little things. Not boxing out here, not getting to a loose ball there, a lazy screen, or not getting a decent out-of-bounds play in; they matter. Successful ND basketball teams of the past seemed to understand that they could combat a deficit in athleticism with maniacal efficiency on the offensive end, and a smart, hard-nosed defensive approach. This particular edition of the Irish have yet to consistently demonstrate that "little things" mentality for 40 minutes.
Perhaps Mike Brey can invite Coach Kelly in on a film session or practice sometime to help convey his message of the importance of doing the little things right. Of course, he may have to wait until Monday because as of the time I wrote this, Kelly was T-47 at the turn in his third round of the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. If he can stay there, he'll make the cut and get another Sunday tee time on Pebble Beach.
WatchND.tv Highlight Package
Mike Brey Post-Game Press Conference
Fun With Charts & Math
What a through beat-down.