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. Syracuse Orange, 79-69
W vs. Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, 90-56
Notre Dame guaranteed themselves top-four placement in the ACC Tournament with a pair of solid wins on their home court. While there is still work to be done in the regular season and the conference tournament, a March Madness appearance now seems more likely to happen than not for this once-moribund Irish squad.
After a week of headaches prior, the the Syracuse Orange got close at the end, the Irish mostly controlled that contest before utterly destroying Georgia Tech from start to finish. What did we learn?
Prentiss Hubb’s Evolution as a Leader
2021-22 has been a bit of a humbling season for Hubb, who had to cede his previous role as a scoring leader to the likes of Blake Wesley and Dane Goodwin and step into a more narrow role as a distributor. Hubb certainly still takes his shots, but he is not the star of this offense and Mike Brey is not scheming in such a way as to make him one. That is a development Hubb, a senior and former high four-star recruit, could have resented and turned into an issue that divided the locker room. Instead, Hubb has been a consummate team player, and his skills as a facilitator have proven quite valuable the Irish have developed an increasingly dynamic and versatile offensive scheme. This was witnessed in his efforts last week: ten assists against Syracuse and six against Georgia Tech, with eight rebounds in the Syracuse game as well.
Hubb’s composure and leadership skills showed themselves in another way against Syracuse: namely, that despite a lower volume of targets and some...suboptimal results on them earlier in the game, he delivered a massive three-pointer coming out of a timeout to give the Irish a five-point lead. A player with wounded pride in his head doesn’t make that shot, but Hubb did. Even in his somewhat diminished role Hubb remains confoundingly, gloriously clutch.
Small Ball Success Continues
Since Nate Laszewski’s injury on February 5th, the Irish have gone with a four-guard, one-forward lineup, with Cormac Ryan taking Laszewski’s starting role. This small-ball approach has continued even with Laszewski appearing mostly healthy and playing significant minutes off the bench, indicating that Mike Brey intends to use it moving forward. This can effectively be seen as the Irish leaning into existing strengths rather than trying to mitigate existing weaknesses. Notre Dame has four starting-quality guards and can beat most ACC opponents simply by outscoring them, so surrendering some size inside appears to a trade-off worth making. With the exception of the February 19th road loss at Wake Forest (in which Notre Dame’s lack of defensive size was a major factor), this lineup is undefeated.
While this lineup has been successful and yielded better returns as Notre Dame’s shooting has improved, it has yet to be seen how far it can carry them. The Wake Forest loss showed the Irish are still vulnerable to being exploited in the paint by teams with size and scoring ability at the forward position, and in a postseason scenario where a loss ends your season, the Irish may find themselves having to play a little larger. At the same time, the smaller lineup also brings Notre Dame some defensive upside, particularly in shutting down the three (Syracuse and Georgia Tech shot 26 and 20 percent, respectively), an area where Ryan excels. Whichever lineup the Irish go with, fans should be happy they have options with experience and scoring potential.
Paul Atkinson is a Fantastic Safety Net
It would be remiss to discuss the success of Notre Dame’s smaller lineup without pointing out how it has been enabled by the outstanding play of the remaining big man in the lineup. Paul Atkinson put up an absolutely monstrous effort against Syracuse, scoring 20 points and grabbing 17 rebounds - eight of which came on offense. The second chances Atkinson provided were crucial on a night where the Irish weren’t shooting as well (40.3% overall and 33.3% from three) as they have in the past. Atkinson’s motor, physicality and persistence have shown up all year and made the difference for the Irish in a must-win game that night.
Atkinson’s reliability has allowed Notre Dame to experiment its guard-heavy rotation and shooting-centric offensive approach while still knowing they have a capable safety net down low, giving them a degree of flexibility not seen since Bonzie Colson prowled the paint for the Irish. The returns from this versatile offensive attack are readily apparent: the Irish are just a few more wins away from locking in a spot in the NCAA tournament.