While Mike Brey's Irish teams have always been able to score, many reasonably expected this edition of Irish basketball to take a large step back from last year's. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton had huge roles for the 2014/15 squad with both playing more than 35 minutes per game last season. Despite losing these two players to the NBA, scoring doesn't seem to be an issue for the 2015/16 team. The Irish are scoring 79.6 points per game this season, up from 78.0 last year. The Irish are more efficient this year, too. ND is scoring 121.4 points per 100 possessions, one more than last year. Obviously this year's team has yet to face the meat of the ACC schedule and (hopefully) multiple tough teams in the postseason, but even after adjusting for strength of schedule, the Irish are still in good shape in KenPom's adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. The Irish offense last season was historically good finishing second nationally behind Wisconsin with a 123.2 adjusted offensive efficiency (123.2 points per 100 possessions). The 123.2 adjO rating is the 7th best since Pomeroy began taking data in 2002. While the numbers have come down a bit this season (while playing with a shorter shot clock making things harder on offenses), the Irish still sit second in the country in adjO at 118.4. Although this version of the offense looks similar to last year's version, there's a few new wrinkles that are keeping the Irish offense humming after the loss of two NBA players.
Mike Brey's Irish teams have always been able to shoot the ball, and this year's team is no exception. Despite losing Connaughton, a 42.3% 3pt shooter who led the team in long range attempts last year, this year's Irish team is actually shooting better from deep than last season's squad. Part of this is due to Jerian Grant's departure. For all of his offensive skills, outside shooting was never one of his best attributes. Grant shot just 31.6% last season, and he took the second most threes on the team. This season, the top four Irish three point shooters by volume are all shooting better than 40%. Demetrius Jackson is shooting the same percentage as last season (42.9%), and Steve Vasturia (44.4% up from 41.1%) and VJ Beachem (43.3% up from 41.6%) have both made improvements. Freshman Matt Ryan has also been a great new addition by shooting a healthy 41.2% beyond the arc. Although Matt Farrell and Bonzie Colson have both struggled with their outside shots (26.7% and 28.6%), they account for just 11.4% of the team's outside shots. The Irish are also shooting a few more threes this season (37.6 3FG/FGA up from 37.0). The better overall percentage (41.2 up from 39.0) and slight uptick in volume are helping to keep the Irish at the top of the efficiency rankings.
While last season a lot of Irish three point attempts came via Grant's dribble penetration (remember Vasturia's dagger against Duke at the JACC?), a healthy number came from well run offensive sets (more about the Irish offense here). That's no different this season.
The Irish used this quite a bit last year, and it's a great pick your poison play. The combination of Demetrius Jackson's driving ability, Auguste's excellent scoring touch after catching the ball rolling to the hoop, and Ryan's smooth shooting stroke give the defense three bad choices. If they play it straight, Jackson or Auguste both have the ability to get to the hoop and score. If they help off another player, a shooter is open beyond the arc. In this case, both Jackson and Auguste's man try to double team the ball handler with Ryan's defender dropping off to help cover Auguste's cut into the lane. Jackson reads the defense perfectly, makes a good pass, and Ryan has no trouble knocking down the open jumper. Interestingly, Loyola also had VJ Beachem's defender helping down in the lane giving ND another option, albeit one requiring a more difficult pass. In addition to Ryan, VJ Beachem and Steve Vasturia have used a pick-and-roll to hunt an open three.
555 games & counting... VJ & DJ have already nailed 3's today to stretch our consecutive games with a 3 mark to 555 pic.twitter.com/sbMjdrjn5O— Notre Dame MBB (@NDmbb) December 9, 2015
When the pick-and-roll action starts, VJ moves from the corner up to the wing. On this play, Stony Brook just tries to hedge this screen, not double team like Loyola. VJ's man tries to help on Auguste instead of staying tight to him leaving the Irish junior open for a three. We saw this play quite a bit last season with Grant handling the ball and Connaughton as the shooter, but this year's Irish can execute it just as well with all of their wing players.
Less Potent Pick and Roll
Last year's Irish offense was absolutely lethal in the pick-and-roll. Jerian Grant was one of the best players in the nation with the ball in his hand coming off a high screen, and the Irish offense greatly benefited from it (it's also why it stinks that he's playing in the triangle in New York, but that's another piece entirely). When Zach Auguste was the screener in the PnR last season, the Irish averaged an insane 1.403 PPP (points per possession).
The pick-and-roll has yet to really click this year, although they've shown flashes of figuring it out. With Auguste as the screener, the Irish are down to a respectable, but nowhere near elite, 1.059 PPP. The effects of the less effective PnR can be seen in the Irish shooting inside the arc. Last season, ND shot 58.2% on 2PT FGs, the best mark in the nation. The 2014/15 Irish got tons of buckets from Grant's open elbow jumpers and Auguste's layups and dunks after PnR action. This year, ND is down to 53.6% (still a solid 46th nationally). Part of this is due to ND using more traditional post-ups to generate offense. Although Bonzie and Zach have been solid posting up their defenders, even successful post ups tend to lead to contested shots around the basket, not open layups and jumpers like in pick-and-roll sets. There's a few obvious reasons for the less effective PnR game this season. First and probably most significant is the loss of Grant. Although Jackson is still effective at running it, he's not as gifted a passer as Jerian. He's also not as experienced running it, so it wouldn't be surprising to see the Irish improve in this area as the season goes along. Secondly, with the Irish playing more with two traditional big-men, opposing defenses are in better position to help on Auguste rolling to the hoop, especially when running standard high ball screen. Defenses were more likely to stay close to Pat Connaughton instead of helping and giving him an open three point look. This opened up the lane for Grant to drive and Auguste to cut. With Bonzie in the game and generally positioned closer to the hoop, helping becomes easier; there's simply more bodies in the way to prevent an easy finish at the rim. Lastly, the Irish used different PnR looks last year while this season, ND has almost exclusively used a high ball screen.
The Irish used sideline PnR looks, seen in both .gifs, quite a bit last season. With the Irish shooters spaced on the weak side of the floor, it was very difficult for defenders to help without leaving a 40% three point shooter wide open. The Irish have the personnel to run this with their smaller lineup of DJ, Vasturia, Beachem, Ryan, with Bonzie or Auguste at the five, but the starters could use it as well. With Bonzie playing the four at the opposite elbow instead of behind the three point line, his man would still be in a tough spot to help without giving Colson an easy jumper from the elbow or an open cut for a layup. Regardless of how they set it up, changing up how they run their pick and rolls would stress defenses in different ways compared to the standard high ball screen. It may be that the coaching staff is waiting until later in the season to fully open up the playbook, but it's something to watch for going forward.
While he showed flashes of brilliance in 2014/15, Zach Auguste has been nothing short of fantastic this year. He currently sits 10th KenPom's Player of the Year Standings, the same spot Jerian finished last season. Last year, Irish fans cringed when the Irish threw it to Zach with his back to the basket, but he's improved his post up game this year. In 2014/15, the Irish scored just .767 PPP on Auguste post-ups; this year, they're up to .894. He's also improved as a passer increasing his assists per game from 0.8 APG to 2.2, the best mark by an Irish big man since Ty Nash in the 2010/11 season. While Brey mentioned that he'd like to see Auguste improve his passing, he was still able to find shooters during the Loyola game when they double teamed him constantly in the post. If he can consistently punish teams for doubling down on the block, we could see even more open looks for Irish sharpshooters outside.
Turnovers: Same as it Ever Was
The Irish have been great at avoiding turnovers under Mike Brey. Since he's taken over in South Bend, his worst team was 45th nationally in turnover rate. Last season, Notre Dame was 3rd nationally at 14.5%; this year, they're still at 14.5%, and sit at 11th. Auguste's TORate is a bit higher than last year, but considering he's getting more back to the basket touches and fewer feeds off PnR, this isn't too surprising. What is surprising is that Demetrius Jackson actually has a lower TORate than last season despite taking on a bigger share of the ball handling and playmaking duties. Of the players in the rotation that returned from last season's team, Beachem has made the biggest improvement dropping his TORate from 12.6% to 7.6% while taking on a bigger role in the offense. While the turnover rate might go up slightly once the Irish face more better defenses in ACC play, it's unlikely that taking care of the ball will be a problem for this year's squad.
Crashing the Glass
Since this year's starting lineup includes two traditional post players, it's no surprise the Irish are rebounding better than last season. Despite the historically good offense last year, the Irish ranked just 277th in Offensive Rebounding Rate at 27.9%. This season with Colson and Auguste frequently playing together, the Irish are up to 79th (34.0%). While Connaughton was an excellent rebounder for his size, he tended to play on the perimeter which limited his chances to grab offensive boards. Colson is usually much closer to the hoop, and is snagging double the offensive rebounds that Pat did. Austin Torres has also been given a few more minutes this season, and grabs more than his share on the offensive glass. Auguste has also improved his offensive rebounding from last year to this one. Even though the Irish probably won't play volleyball with opponents like Kentucky and Texas can, all these improvements still add up to more extended possessions for the Irish offense and more chances to score. If the Irish can keep cleaning up the glass like they have thus far, a top-100 finish in OReb% would be the best mark for the Irish since 2008.
Tougher Schedule Coming, but Still Room to Grow
While this version of the Irish offense isn't quite the same as the historically great one we got to watch last year, it still has a chance to still be one of the best in the country. More importantly, this year's team still has time to improve. I'd expect the pick and roll to get better as guys get more comfortable running it with each other. They could also start to run more creative PnR looks which would only help. While the raw numbers may come down a bit as the Irish get into the meat of the schedule (starting Saturday with Indiana), they should still be in great shape to get buckets against any team in the country.