A year ago, when the talent level was a bit more limited, experience in crucial situations was hard to come by, and games came down to the wire, the Notre Dame basketball team had great difficulty closing the deal.
Of the 20 games that were decided by single digits, Notre Dame lost 12 of them, including seven out of eight on the road.
En route to a 17-2, 5-1 start to the 2014-15 season, the No. 8-ranked Irish have reversed that trend. Notre Dame is 5-2 so far in single-digit games, including one- and three-point wins on the road against North Carolina and Georgia Tech respectively, a seven-point double-overtime victory at home over the Yellow Jackets, and last Saturday’s 75-70 conquest of Miami with the Hurricanes coming off a shocking double-digit road victory over Duke.
How have they done it, despite trailing Miami by 12, Georgia Tech by 12 on the road and 11 at home, Michigan State by seven and Massachusetts by 10?
“Coach made a great point that when we get down, we don’t feel bad for ourselves. We get mad,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton, perhaps the most unflappable of all the members of the 2014-15 team. “We get annoyed with each other, not annoyed in a bad way, but annoyed where we’re able to call each other out and step up the level of intensity.
“That says a lot about this team. You never have to play mad; that makes you play fast. But you can play mad where it makes you play tougher and dig deep and come back from those 13-point deficits. We don’t want to put ourselves in those 13-point deficits very often, but if we find ourselves there, we’re able to dig down and dig our way out of it.”
Notre Dame has become so conditioned to stay positive during tough times that point guard Demetrius Jackson was surprised to hear they were down by 12 to Miami. He didn’t even realize it during the course of the game.
“It’s expected,” said Jackson of Notre Dame’s ability to overcome deficits. “When we’re down, we’re not wondering; we’re kind of mad. We realize we have to pick it and be more intense.
“I don’t think guys are ever doubting, ever wondering. We keep plugging because we know eventually our defense will take its toll, and as long as we lock it in on the defensive end, the offense will start to flow.”
Head coach Mike Brey has his own theory, and it’s tied to preparation in practice. His goal at the start of every season is to never face a situation that they haven’t seen, haven’t repped in practice, haven’t prepared for.
“We do game situations every day,” said Brey moments after out-scoring the Hurricanes, 35-22, over the final 13:15.
“Down one, up one, what are we going to run? Against zone, man, getting the ball inbounds at the end when we know they’re going to foul…We do three or four of them every day, starting with the first day of practice.”
It’s empowering when a situation practiced the day before pops up in a game 24 hours later.
“Many times in a game, the game situation that is up on the board, we’ve done it and we may have done it the day before,” Brey said. “I’ll say to the guys, ‘Fellas, this look familiar to you?’ and they’ll say, ‘Coach, we ran that one yesterday!’”
Brey -- called the ultimate confidence-given because of his patience and positive message in the most dire of situations – often jokes that he’s the “loosest coach in America.” Players don’t have to look over their shoulder for fear of being yanked after a bad shot. Rarely does he make a coaching move in anger.
It also helps to have players who match his patient yet competitive personality, a description that fits his captain, Connaughton, perfectly.
When the Irish downshifted to a smaller lineup – without a true post player on the court for the final 15:32 of the victory over Miami -- the Notre Dame players approached it with confidence.
One, because they had taken repetitions the previous day with a small lineup, and two, because of the confidence that’s been instilled within their system.
“When we shift to five guards and people try to shift with us, the advantage is with us because we’re used to playing that way,” Connaughton said. “They’re trying to counter us by following our lead. Usually, we’re in the advantage on that side.”
That seems to be the case in virtually every situation so far this season for the Irish.