Mike Brey's Notre Dame teams have always primarily played man-to-man defense. In previous years and during the non-conference portion of the season, however, when the Irish looked to change things up on the defensive end, they switched into a 2-3 zone. During ACC play this year, however, Notre Dame has used almost no zone defense. Instead, Mike Brey has made some subtle changes to the Irish man defense to get opponents off balance. The two biggest adjustments from the last few games were an immediate double team in the post against Georgia Tech, and the much discussed five guard lineup against Miami. As we saw in both games, both adjustments can helped the Irish get timely stops when they needed them and turned three possible losses into wins.
Normal ND Post Defense
Georgia Tech gave ND all they could handle in their two recent games against the Irish. A big reason for that is the offensive ability of GT's front line players. In the double overtime game at the JACC, the Yellow Jackets' starting front court combined for 42 points. In the second, these same three players had just 25. At the start of the game in South Bend, the Irish played normal man-defense and behind GT's players in the post. Against most college big men, this approach works. The average college post player isn't gifted enough offensively to score consistently on entry passes. Georgia Tech's big guys, however, were frequently beating Irish defenders down low.
The 270 lb Yellow Jacket forward Charles Mitchell has no problem backing down the smaller Zach Auguste for an easy two. Auguste is better at the offensive end than on defense, and against a stronger player like Mitchell the Irish are at a disadvantage. Additionally, Auguste was in foul trouble for much of the first GT game and missed the second one entirely with his academic issue, so the Irish needed to find a way to stop GT inside without their primary interior defender.
Doubling in the Post
With Auguste out of the game, Mike Brey elected to double Georgia Tech on the catch in the post. This means that as soon as an opposing player catches the ball inside, a guard will immediately help on defense. Usually, the guard defending the player that made the entry pass will leave his man to help guard the larger player. Although the defense leaves a man open while the ball is in the post, it can be worth it to stop a gifted post scorer.
In this play from the game in Atlanta, Jerian Grant leaves his man to help Pat Connaughton with the 6' 8" 275 lb Demarco Cox. Instead of getting the chance to back down the smaller Irish guard, Cox tries to quickly pass the ball back outside. Grant's pressure affects the pass, and Demetrius Jackson gets the steal that leads to two points at the other end. While doubling inside can be quite effective at shutting down an opponent inside, it has some obvious downsides. If the big man being doubled is a gifted passer, he might be able find an open teammate before the double team arrives which often leads to an open shot or drive. Additionally, a team with good outside shooting can make a team pay for double teaming inside by hitting open shots from beyond the arc. Despite these weaknesses, against teams that primarily score inside, doubling immediately can be the right move. When the Irish face Duke next week, and Louisville later in the season, we can expect the Irish to help inside on potential All-Americans Jahil Okafor and Montrezl Harrell to force someone else to beat them.
Problems Defending Pick-and-Roll
Much like Notre Dame, Miami scores a lot of their points on pick-and-rolls. Part of what makes defending pick-and-roll so difficult is that a big man is frequently forced to defend a long way from the basket. When a post player sets a ball screen on the perimeter, his man generally tries to "hedge" the screen. This involves cutting off the ball handler coming off the screen, not allowing him to turn the corner, staying in position while the original defender recovers, and then getting back to his man to stop the roll to the hoop. For a defender that generally prefers to stay near the paint, this is a really tough job. If the hedging defender fails at any part of his job, it can lead to an easy basket.
Here we see Zach Auguste fail to stop Miami guard Manu Lacomte from turning the corner. Lacomte isn't slowed at all by Auguste's hedge, and Jerian Grant can't get back to him in time to challenge the shot. Additionally, it looks like Auguste's man is open for at least a split second as he rolls to the hoop, and had a layup if Lacomte was looking to dish. Hedging against a good guard is difficult, and Auguste isn't the only Irish big man to have trouble with it.
In this play, Demetrius Jackson does a great job of quickly getting through the screen, but Bonzie Colson gets stuck in no man's land. He doesn't really slow down Angel Rodriguez, but he doesn't get back to is his man to defend the roll either. Luckily for the Irish, Tonye Jekiri misses the easy attempt at the rim.
The Irish Go Small
Instead of hedging, one of the ways to beat perimeter pick-and-rolls is to "switch" the screen. Like the name suggests, the defenders will just switch who they are guarding instead of trying to work through the pick. When playing with a normal lineup, this can be impractical. If a big man sets a pick for the point guard, the defense generally doesn't want to switch and have their center guarding the opposing point guard and their point guard defending the center for the rest of the possession. Most teams already switch nearly every screen between players defending the 1, 2, and 3, and many will switch on the 4 as well. This means the defenders guarding the opposing point guard, shooting guard, small forward, and often the power forward are free to switch on any screen. Switching the 5, however, is another story. By playing five guards, the Irish decided they switch every ball screen, and would not worry about the resulting matchup.
At the start of this possession, Miami runs three quick ball screens, and the Irish switch all of them without hesitation. This makes it much more difficult to score off a pick-and-roll since neither the ball handler or the picker will be free of a defender for more than an instant. The Irish are able to switch so effectively when going small because Jackson, Grant, Vasturia, Connaughton, and Beacham are all capable on ball defenders that can keep a quick point guard in front of them. Miami frequently forced a switch to get Angel Rodriguez matched up with Vasturia, but the Irish sophomore had no trouble checking the Miami point guard. The Irish offense also helps their defense when playing a small lineup. Since all five members of the small ball lineup are legitimate three point threats, opponents will be hesitant to play a slower big man and risk giving one of the Irish bombers open looks.
There are some obvious weaknesses to going with five guards, but the Irish have the personnel to cover some of them. If the opponent keeps a big man on the court, the point guard could conceivably be guarding someone that's nearly a foot taller than they are. During the Miami game, Demetrius Jackson ended up guarding Tonye Jakiri, Miami's center, after a switch. Jackson's strength kept him from being pushed around too badly by the larger player down low. ND was also helped by Miami not continuously feeding the post to try to punish the Irish for going small. Rebounding can also be a problem with a five guard lineup, but Pat Connaughton really helps the Irish here. The 6' 5" guard plays much bigger than his size, and leads the team in rebounding. Forcing the first miss is great, but no defense is good enough to consistently stop a team that gets two and three shots per possession. With Pat cleaning up the glass, ND was able to limit to Miami to one shot each trip down the floor while playing the smaller lineup. Lastly, if an opponent has a solid back-to-the-basket post player, going small will probably backfire. A good post player will destroy a smaller guard inside, and his team should continusously exploit that mismatch. To set this up, the center will set a screen for the point guard, let the switch take place, then take his new, smaller defender to the block and demand the ball. Even a strong guard like Jackson can't be expected to stop a player that's a foot taller and 100 lbs heavier down low.
While both of these adjustments have helped the Irish in recent games, don't expect to see them every time the Irish take the floor. Whether ND will use one, the other, or just play their normal man-to-man will depend on the opponent. Brey only called for immediate double teams inside because the Georgia Tech big men were exploiting ND's lack of size. Furthermore, Notre Dame could afford to go small against Miami since the Canes don't have a great low post scorer, and the Irish needed to stop the pick-and-roll. While ND probably won't go small against Duke and Louisville, doubling inside can help cover for their lack of size against Okafor and Harrell. In much the same way, there will also be a team on the schedule that the Irish can go small against, and not give up much down low. Being able to defend in different ways can help ND overcome a potentially bad matchup, and will hopefully lead to success come tournament time.
Coach Brey Press Conference
Listen for Brey's comments in the first minute about how the small lineup allowed ND to switch every ball screen.