By all accounts, Notre Dame's Senior Day was a success. Players and fans had an opportunity to salute the contributions of Zach Auguste and A.J. Burgett. The Fighting Irish secured a 89-75 victory over the North Carolina State Wolfpack. With an assist from our friends in Chapel Hill, the Irish locked in to a double bye in their defense of their ACC crown. Most importantly, the Irish offense found its way out of an offensive funk that had plagued it down the stretch run of the ACC season.
In his post-game comments, Irish Head Coach Mike Brey gave a glimpse of how he coaxed his team to turn up the tempo and get back to their high-scoring ways. Working with a short shot-clock in practice, Brey and his staff encouraged the team to play faster. Notre Dame is going to push the ball in transition and look to attack in the open floor. The plan paid off against the Wolfpack, but it also gave reasons to think that sprinting in to March might be the best way for the Irish to make some noise this post-season.
Here are 3 big reasons to like Brey's decision to heat up the tempo going in to D.C.
Your best player wants to play that way
Demetrius Jackson is a "downhill" basketball player. He is the basketball equivalent to the 1-cut running back who wants to hit the hole hard and get north and south. DJ salivates at the sight of a defender backing up. When in full attack mode, DJ's pull-up jumper becomes 4,782 times more dangerous to opposing defenses. The easiest way for DJ to find space to work is to beat guys down the floor. Much was made of his recent shooting/scoring woes, but even a quick study of the GT, FSU and Miami games would show teams placing 2-3 guys into help positions to crowd and clog the lane against the Irish half court offense. It isn't that DJ can't play in the half court, but he isn't quite the ball screen assassin that Jerian Grant was. Moreover, this edition of the Irish can't spread you out late in the shot clock. Jackson thrives offensively and defensively at a frenetic pace. Look at his effectiveness in the 72 possession game vs. NC State compared to the 57 possession game against Miami.
Unlock some of depth
Playing the way your best player wants to play is fantastic if you have the personnel to back him up. Earlier in the year, Brey hunkered down as the press rained down questions about fatigue and bench minutes. He explained that depth was overrated and that the reason for his team's tremendous offensive efficiency was clarity of roles and limiting the number of ball handlers. This, he explained, kept the turnovers down and ensured you got a good shot every possession. Moreover, throttling down the offense let him keep his tremendous back court in the game for 39+ minutes per night without totally exhausting their legs. They could rest without the ball on the offensive end without the burden of turning up tempo. Fans and media, however grew frustrated as this appeared to be one of the deeper rosters Brey ever brought in to a season.
To his credit, Brey had to look at his roster with a critical eye. By playing 6.5 guys, he was leaving some talented guys on the pine. There were contributions to be had from guys outside his "main guy" set, but they were all either young or inconsistent. Like any college coach, Brey craves predictability. For coaches, predictability and control are like water and oxygen. His problem, of course, was that the Irish had gotten stuck. The hallmark of the ACC Championship team was its ability to find the guy who could get it done on a given night. The current team was struggling mightily to make up for the slump DJ and Steve found themselves in. Rex Pflueger had firmly established his value on the defensive end, but everyone was living with his lackluster offensive contribution. Some had written off Matt Ryan as either overrated as a sharp shooter or dead-legged from his long commute from Carroll Hall. The reality is that freshmen will always struggle in half court sets. The leap from attacking high school defenses to big-time college defenses is massive. The easiest way to reduce that burden is open up the floor and just play on instincts. Get up tempo, hunt shots, run hard, and just play. Brey has to be willing to live with a bad shot or two and possibly an extra turnover to really "unlock" his freshmen. They came out hunting on Senior Day and served notice that they're ready to contribute to a March run.
If you think about ND's next 2 guys, you have Austin Torres and A.J. Burgett. The Austin Torres Energy Machine (TM) thrives in a running environment. Both he and Burgett are too undersized to bump and bang in the post possession after possession, so turning up the tempo allows you to use them to run opposing bigs out of the game. Neither guy has the skills to consistently get his own shot, but both have shown the legs to opportunistically contribute in open floor scenarios. Moreover, the emergence of a legitimate 4 man rotation in the front court frees Zach Auguste to be at his rim-running best. Auguste can get a blow and know that when Torres comes in, whoever was defending Zach is about to get a 3-5 minute set of wind sprints to deal with. Auguste is playing wonderfully right now, and we want to see him get as many effective minutes as he can handle. Being able to leverage guys like Torres to get him rest while still grinding opponents is a key to being able to play 3 games in 3 nights.
Matt Farrell has a similar contribution to make in the back court. Like Torres and Burgett, his contributions in a half-court offense are somewhat limited. In an open floor, however, the dude gets that twinkle in his eye. He's going to turn a few over by throwing them to the ref, but he's also going to set the table for Auguste in transition. That gym rat swagger can have value down the stretch and he makes the offense better in an open floor game. Running also helps limit his exposure on the defensive end. If the Irish are going to turn up the offensive tempo, I'd love to see Brey crank up the ball pressure too. Farrell, like Jackson, is going to be much better has a havoc defender gambling in the open floor than trying to chest up a driver in a half court game. If Farrell can give Steve and DJ even a few extra minutes to take a look at the game and catch their breath, then turning up the tempo has compounding interest for Brey's game plan.
There was part of me that wanted to write a paragraph on how unfortunate it was that this resurgent tempo would limit Bonzie Colson's contribution to the Irish offense, but thankfully Ken Pomeroy's numbers served up the perfect myth-busting slap in the face. Notre Dame had 70 possessions in their 95-91 win over Duke in Durham. Of course, between talking junk at Coach K's bench and smiling at the Crazies, Bonzie managed to put up 31 points. While his penchant for post touches would have you thinking he'd prefer a slower tempo, Bonzie's best scoring opportunities come from chances to take an undersized 4 under the rim and use his width to create space to get his shot off. Running helps mitigate some of the help rotations teams use to double post catches. No matter how much you run, there will be times in a game where you're forced to face a set defense. This puts a premium on Bonzie's post touches in the half court and gives him a chance to make very important contributions if teams decide to play him straight up with a smaller defender.
Your opponents haven't seen it
I put this on Twitter, and it was really the genesis of this article. Late in the year, I think it was fair to say opposing coaches had "figured out" the Irish offense. The success teams like Virginia and Syracuse had by crowding the lane was replicated by Georgia Tech, Florida State and Miami. In those 3 losses, the Irish played at 60, 63, and 57 possessions respectively and posted three of their least efficient performances of the year. When shots stopped falling, guys started pressing, but their wasn't a clear lane to get in to. Blocked shots went up, turnovers went up, and it looked like a historically good offense had completely derailed at the worst possible time. Scouting this team became incredibly simple for anyone they'd see in the postseason. Pack the lane against P&R, keep a half an eye on Beachem or Ryan if they're in, but the Irish were far more likely to slice you off the bounce or with PnR than bomb you out of the gym.
The simple and obvious answer was to simply look to the ACC Championship team and say, "Just make shots." Easier said than done. It would be cool if you could just declare you need to get taller, or smarter, or better looking, but it doesn't work that way. If Brey's only answer was "we need to knock some in," you'd have to question the former CoY's credentials. To his credit, he found something else. He turned the shot clock in practice down as low as 18 seconds and got his team playing downhill behind their all-everything point guard. He trusted that years of pounding the importance of ball security into his team didn't require a short bench or plodding pace to keep turnovers down.
Now, Mike Brey has a weapon in his quiver that doesn't require him visiting the Grotto hoping to find 2 or 3 guys shooting 40% of better from deep. It will be great if they show up, but if they don't, he's not going to pack it in and grind it out with gritted teeth. Opening up the floor and picking up the tempo gives him another style card to put in play. This makes them exponentially more difficult to prepare for. There are legitimately 9 guys you need to scout and be ready for. There are 5 starters who average double figures, but there are also guys on the bench that can easily go off for 10-20 with a hot hand. It is bad enough you have to defend all 5 positions when the Irish starters are in the half court, but now you have to spot bench guys on the move in transition too - ouch.
Years ago, injury forced Mike Brey to alter his team's style in a way that would make the best of a tough situation. Brey slowed them to a crawl to make opponents uncomfortable. He did it in time to salvage a season many thought was lost. This Thursday, Brey's team gets to test out his tweaking skills again as they fight for back-to-back ACC titles in Washington DC. They're going to open it up. They're going to play fast. They're going to play loose. Notre Dame is coming at you, and they're going to make you uncomfortable by bringing scoring threats from every angle and one of the most athletic PG's in the country. If nothing else, Brey has succeeded in making things a lot more interesting heading in to our nation's capital.