Following our pattern from the football season, this basketball season we’re going to be taking a look at the start of each week at lessons learned from the previous week’s action for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. This, of course, involves multiple games and will therefore be more of a look at overall trends than a focus on one game. Let me know what you think/what you noticed in the comments!
Last Week’s Results
W vs. Clemson Tigers, 72-56
L @ Virginia Tech Hokies, 73-79
W @ Howard Bison, 71-68
Last week’s action revealed both the strong potential of this Irish squad and its still-persistent weaknesses. After cleaning up at home against Clemson, the Irish took a six-game win streak into their second matchup of the week, a Saturday-night tilt at Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, that streak was snapped when the Irish, who had controlled the game throughout, let the game slip through their fingers in the final minutes. The Irish then bounced back on short rest, holding off a determined Howard squad on the road in the MLK Classic. What did we learn?
Lack of Depth Down Low is a Defensive Vulnerability
Notre Dame has employed a 7-man rotation for most of the season, with three guards and two forwards in the starting lineup and two other guards (usually Cormac Ryan and Trey Wertz) getting significant minutes off the bench. When Paul Atkinson or Nate Laszewski have needed rest and/or been in foul trouble, Mike Brey has typically opted for a four-guard look. While this may the best strategy given the Irish personnel (Elijah Taylor is being held out for academic reasons, leaving only Matt Zona on the bench), it does create a massive vulnerability against teams that can score in the paint - a vulnerability Virginia Tech exposed on Saturday night.
Justyn Mutts and Keve Aluma posed a powerful frontcourt challenge to Notre Dame’s defense, which the Irish contained reasonably well in the first half. But their physicality got Atkinson into foul trouble early in the second half, which forced him to spend significant minutes either on the bench or playing with one hand tied behind has back to avoid ejection. With the Irish defense vulnerable in the paint, Mutts and Aluma gradually control of the game. Brey attempted to adjust by rotating between man and zone defenses to get help, but the Irish were unable to stop the bleeding. The Hokies uncovered a key vulnerability for Notre Dame - as long as the Irish lack capable options off the bench at forward, teams that can play physically, force fouls and score down low are going to try to exploit that.
A theme throughout this week of action was Notre Dame struggling to close in games where they led for most of the action. The Irish completely collapsed in Blacksburg on Saturday night after leading from 18:41 in the first half until 5:52 in the second, and leading by as many as ten in the second half. On Monday the Irish nearly suffered the same fate at Howard, surrendering a 10-0 run that included four turnovers and allowed the Bison a shot at the upset in the final minutes.
The Irish did hold onto their big lead at home against Clemson, but the overall trend here is concerning as the Irish try to progress toward a goal of making the NCAA tournament. Given their start to the season, the Irish can’t afford to let winnable games slip through their fingers if they hope to achieve that goal. Mike Brey and co. have to work on developing offensive attacks that continue to rack up points while draining clock, as well as defensive counter-adjustments for when down opponents try to make a run.
No Margin for Error
Saturday night’s loss to Virginia Tech should have been a win for the Irish, which is frustrating but forgivable in a vacuum. It is more upsetting, however, when you consider the position the Irish are in at this point in the season: having had a less-than-ideal start and with matchups against conference leaders still to come in the future, the Irish have little margin for error and cannot afford to lose winnable games. What happened in Blacksburg on Saturday night can’t happen again, or the Irish could face yet another lonely March.
The good news is that this year’s Irish squad has shown signs of progress over its predecessor, particularly in four straight conference wins that showed a team gaining cohesion and consistency. They now have the remainder of the week to rest and regroup before hitting the road again to take on the Louisville Cardinals prior to a three-game homestand that includes a tilt with the Duke Blue Devils. Now is the time for the Irish to clean things up and make a move - will they?