Ellis weighs in on ND’s bounce-back season

Ellis is impressed with Notre Dame’s vast improvement on the defensive end of the court where, despite rebounding issues, the Irish have been able to mitigate their shortcomings. He points to Demetrius Jackson, Pat Connaughton and Steve Vasturia as the catalysts of an improved defense.

With each passing season, former Notre Dame great LaPhonso Ellis takes another step in his rise up the ladder of upper echelon college basketball analysts, plying his trade for ESPN.

Ellis -- who stands as Notre Dame’s No. 14 all-time scorer (1,505), No. 4 rebounder (1,075) and No. 2 shot-blocker (200) – was flying back from Boston Thursday morning after calling Syracuse’s 70-56 victory over Boston College when Irish Illustrated caught up with the 1992 Notre Dame graduate.

Ellis provided Irish Illustrated with an analysis of the 2014-15 Notre Dame squad that sits solidly in second place in the ACC with a 22-4 overall record and a 10-3 mark in ACC play.

TIM PRISTER: You’re on the run these days covering a whole bunch of basketball across the country, but I know you’ve been to Notre Dame to see the Irish play and keep tabs on your alma mater. For starters, you’re general thoughts on the season following a really tough year in their first season in the ACC.
LAPHONSO ELLIS: I think Mike Brey was brilliant in his approach to the season. After the loss in the ACC tournament last year, rallying the guys, getting guys on the same page, and then putting together a trip that allowed this team to get some confidence in Europe. He wisely, wisely putting together a pre-conference schedule that was pretty soft and allowed these kids to win some games and get some confidence.

When you have a couple of veteran, mature players on your team, all you need is a little confidence, and I think Mike was brilliant in his whole approach. Everything is lined up beautifully for this team, not only to get back to the NCAA tournament, but to have a decent seed as well.

TP: What do you see as the ‘secret’ to Notre Dame’s offensive success through the years under Brey?
LE: Mike’s teams have always passed the basketball well. Sometimes with a post player, the ball doesn’t move as well as it needs to move. But this year Zach Auguste is greatly improved down in the low post and has played a much-improved brand of basketball overall. He doesn’t demand 15, 18, 22 touches a game, and because of that, the ball moves with four guards on the court who can space it and shoot it.

They can drive if someone is closing them out. The masterful Jerian Grant does a great job of being the primary ball-handler, not only in short-clock and end-of-game situations, but if you watch the whole game, he’s the one that’s really handling the point guard responsibilities. Demetrius (Jackson) handles it too, but Jerian is the guy.

Jerian is great in two areas: he’s a really good scorer and he’s a phenomenal passer. He has great vision, and at 6-4, you can’t give him both. You’ve got to take away one. Teams that are successful against Notre Dame have allowed him to still get his five or six assists, but they haven’t allowed him to get the shot attempts.

TP: In most years, the offensive prowess is a given. Your thoughts on the strides they’ve made on the defensive end?
LE: A good defense always has, at minimum, two guys that can contain their guy on the perimeter. We have those two. We have Demetrius at the point guard position and we have Pat Connaughton, whose really a guard playing at the four position.

They have a decent -- not great -- but a decent rim protector in Zach Auguste. The teams that we have trouble with have perimeter players, guards, who are tricky with the basketball, get to gaps, and force help and rotation, which leads to kicks and long closeouts, which leads to drives to the rim.

I agree that it begins with Demetrius defensively because having a really good defense starts with a ball hawk, and then a guy like Connaughton who can play multiple positions. He has a low base, his feet are wide, he moves well and he’s pretty strong. The defense, in my opinion, is really anchored by those two guys.

Then you have a guy like Steve Vasturia, who’s not as quick but does a really nice job of playing really nice perimeter defense. Those three guys are the main reasons they’re successful defensively this year.

TP: When they’ve struggled, it’s been on the backboards. They’ve done a good job of mitigating that with other strengths. What does a team have to do if rebounding just is not a strength?
LE: It’s all about possessions and trying to have more possessions than your opponent, and there are a variety of ways to do that for the deficiency that they have on the defensive boards.

Teams aren’t dominating Notre Dame per se on the boards. Maybe numbers-wise at times, but not in how the game unfolds. (The opponents) are getting the offensive rebounds, but Notre Dame does a great job of attacking the basketball once they’ve given up an offensive rebound. So the efficiency of offensive rebound put-backs is not there. Couple that with the efficiency that Notre Dame has on the offensive end and that has neutralized the whole deal.

Don’t turn it over so they don’t get extra possessions, and although they’re getting offensive rebounds, they’re not getting very many second-chance opportunities and scores. Notre Dame is making the opponents shoot tough twos and challenged threes. That’s how Notre Dame has been able to mitigate their inability to win the rebounding game. That’s what you have to do – unless you’re a pressing team – and Notre Dame is not that.

TP: What is your perspective on Mike Brey and his short bench? That’s how Brey coaches it, so there’s concern at this stage of the season that the Irish are getting worn down. What is your perspective on that?
LE: I’ve been inwardly critical and have thought that you’ve got to get a couple more guys in there, even if they’re only playing two or three minutes to rest your guys, Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant particularly.

As I look around the (ACC), unfortunately, I see a lot of injuries. Syracuse played seven last night and Boston College played eight. Teams that pressure are playing nine and 10, Arkansas and teams like that. Indiana plays nine, but they pick you up full court.

I don’t have much of an issue with it. I’d like to see us play eight, but I don’t really see what the big deal is. Duke usually plays mainly with eight. The end part of the schedule is setting up well for Notre Dame because usually they’re playing a lot of games toward the end of the season going into the conference tournament. This year, that’s not the case. The guys that play mega-minutes should have plenty of time to get their legs back again.

TP: Everyone knows Brey’s teams haven’t had much post-season success. How good of a chance do you think Notre Dame has to be a match-up problem for a few of their NCAA tournament opponents this time?
LE: As they get to the ACC and NCAA tournaments, it’s all about matchups. For us, through the years, we’ve had some pretty tough matchups, even going back to my time in South Bend. It comes down to matchups.

Notre Dame is a difficult match-up this year. Coupled with the fact that their schedule is so spread out over the last three-and-a-half weeks of the regular season, I would think Notre Dame will be one of the more difficult match-ups for most teams heading into the NCAA tournament.

As an alum, I couldn’t be more proud of how they’re playing, how connected they are, and the toughness that they’re playing with. Mike Brey has done a brilliant job this season.

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