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Notre Dame Men’s Basketball: Three Things We Learned Last Week with a #2 ACC regular season finish

The deep breath before the plunge

Pittsburgh v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

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

L @ Florida State Seminoles, 74-70

W vs. Pittsburgh Panthers, 78-54

Despite a stumble in Tallahassee, Notre Dame still did enough to secure the #2 seed in the ACC at the close of the regular season. With their double bye in the conference tournament secure, they will go directly to the quarterfinals and await either the Clemson Tigers, NC State Wolfpack or Virginia Tech Hokies. At this point the Irish are close to a lock for the NCAA tournament to follow, but a solid performance in the conference tourney would erase all doubt and could secure them a better seeding. The path to glory is still long, but it is now open before us - what have we learned?

The Inside Vulnerability Remains

In Notre Dame’s road defeat at Florida State, we saw one of Notre Dame’s key vulnerabilities exposed again as John Butler absolutely dominated (16 points, eight rebounds, four blocks), with center Tanor Ngom throwing in another 12 points. While their small four-guard lineup stayed competitive despite a relatively poor shooting performance (26.3% from distance), the Irish were ultimately unable to hold up against the physicality of the Seminoles’ frontcourt.

NCAA Basketball: Notre Dame at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

While Paul Atkinson showed he could still generate offense down low when overmatched (17 points and six offensive rebounds), it was clear yet again that he alone was not enough to slow down a big lineup on the other end. Butler especially hurt the Irish with his inside-out versatility, going 4-of-5 on threes. With postseason play imminent, Mike Brey has to making shore up this weakness a key priority.

Perimeter Defense Continues to Excel

Switching over to a defensive bright spot, apart from Butler’s standout performance in Tallahassee the Irish defense continued to do a good job defending the three-point shot. Limiting Butler was an unconventional and difficult task for the Irish perimeter defenders given his size, but Notre Dame otherwise limited the Seminoles’ shooters, and then shut down Pittsburgh to the tune of an 11.5% hit rate.

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

This continues to be the trade-off for Notre Dame’s defense in its guard-heavy lineup - the Irish are more able to cover the perimeter with Cormac Ryan starting as a fourth guard, but it leaves them more open on the inside. Continuing to refine this approach in both the starting lineup and substitutions will be key to helping Notre Dame advance against better and better competition as the season goes on.

The Wesley Factor

Notre Dame’s freshman phenom continued to show his game-changing potential in both games this week. His driving scoring efforts against Florida State not only led the team, but kept the Irish in the game as his fellow guards fell ice cold from distance in the second half. He came off the bench against Pittsburgh as Mike Brey went with an all-senior starting lineup for the first few minutes, but still provided a major spark with eleven points, four rebounds and four assists. But the play that truly captured Wesley’s unique contribution was this:

What you saw there is pure star power, the playmaking ability to turn what looked like a lost possession into a massive bucket. Scheme changes can alter the way these plays unfold and what opportunities exist on both sides of the ball, but raw talent like Wesley’s can always force a flip of the script. As the big dance approaches, Wesley’s ability to seize opportunities and alter the game will be more and more critical to Notre Dame’s success.