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. Louisville Cardinals, 63-57
W @ Clemson Tigers, 76-61
Folks, your Fighting Irish are sitting atop the ACC standings, have won eight of ten (and sixteen of eighteen!) games, and seem to be coming on stronger as the ACC slate rolls on. Last week, that hot streak saw Notre Dame win in a now-familiar roller-coaster pattern (the Irish got a big lead, lost it, and then built it back up) at home against Louisville, then putting on a dominant away performance against Clemson. What did we learn?
Notre Dame Has Found its Defensive Identity
The Irish defense has undergone a remarkable evolution this season, going from a porous unit that gave up 73 points to lowly Boston College in its ACC debut to a stout and cohesive scheme that has held its own up and down the conference and showed remarkable flexibility. The Irish have proven particularly effective in zone defense, with defenders securing the interior, forcing long possessions and effectively shutting down the three-point shot (Louisville and Clemson shot a combined 10-of-48 from distance).
This surprisingly flexible and consistent performance has anchored the Irish throughout their impressive run in ACC play, giving the offense opportunities to sort out shifting hot hands and establish strong leads early in games. With higher-stakes games on the horizon, expect to see continued refinement and improvement from the Irish on defense.
This defensive performance is all the more impressive when you consider the Irish achieved it largely without Nate Laszewski, who was injured for the entirety of the Louisville game and played only 16 minutes against Clemson. In his absence the Irish went with a full-time small lineup, with Cormac Ryan starting in Laszewski’s place. While the Irish did surrender strong forward performances in each of these games (Jae’Lyn Withers scored 20 points for Louisville, while PJ Hall notched 19 for Clemson) the strength of their overall efforts prevented a larger system failure. Ryan’s efforts were particularly strong on the perimeter, where he played a major role in limiting Cardinal and Tiger shooters.
On offense, Ryan and Trey Wertz each had some nice moments, hitting a few key shots while distributing the ball effectively, and the Irish didn’t see much of an offensive drop-off from Laszewski’s absence. Much has been made of Notre Dame’s lack of a deep bench this season, and it is true that the near-exclusive use of a seven-man rotation poses some serious risks. But it’s at least some comfort to know that the two guys the Irish do have coming off the bench can keep the Irish competing at a high level if a starter goes down.
Firing on All Cylinders
Speaking of offensive output, the Clemson game on Saturday saw the Irish put forth one of their most complete and dominant performances of the season. Blake Wesley completed his re-emergence from a nasty midseason slump with an outstanding 21-point effort - including five made three-pointers - while Dane Goodwin offered 20 more. More important than the individual performances, however, was the way Notre Dame played together. The Irish distributed the ball with great efficiency - each starter earned at least one assist - and chose their shots extremely well, shooting 52.7% overall and 54.6% from beyond the arc.
Yes, it was against a weak and undermanned Clemson squad, and yes the Louisville game showed us a less-consistent Irish offense. But that model of dynamic team play can be carried and adapted against stronger competition. Let’s hope the Irish do carry it into Winston-Salem on Saturday.