1. A THING OF BEAUTY IS A JOY FOREVER
In an era replete with clutch-and-grab defense, volleyball matches on the backboards, and hideous transition finishes, Notre Dame basketball has emerged as one of college basketball's exceptions to the rule.
They've emerged victorious in one of the two most well-played, pure, and entertaining basketball games this season, a late-January win over Duke (incidentally, Duke participated in the other as well last week in an overtime win against North Carolina).
They assist on 0.23 percent of their baskets (only 10 potential NCAA Tournament teams have a higher rate) and in terms of aesthetic importance, those assists often include two, sometimes three teammates sharing the ball immediately preceding the shot.
They're dynamic in half-court sets (credit Mike Brey), they convert in transition (credit the squad's bigs for high-level coordination), in short-clock opportunities (credit Jerian Grant) in end-game and end-half situations (credit Grant again) and they play focused first-shot defense (more on that below).
It's the most complete offensive team of the Brey era, not only because of all of the above, but because his seven-man rotation of regulars includes interchangeable parts. (It's clear the eighth man, Austin Torres, isn't a true eighth, he's opponent-specific.)
Saturday at Boston College, Notre Dame held a 17-0 scoring advantage off the bench -- in the first half. At one point midway through the first, Brey's Irish produced a 9-2 run that included the following: Bonzie Colson dunk, Colson jumper, V.J. Beachem three-pointer, Beachem layup.
Colson scored 16 points in 19 minutes; Beachem 10 in 16 on just seven shots. Their seamless integration into the rotation gives Notre Dame seven starters down the stretch. That's almost as good as having a solid five with a viable four-man bench.
Outside of perhaps Kentucky, there's no team they can't beat on a given night. No team is more focused, team-oriented, or enjoyable to watch operate.
Midway through Saturday's victory over Boston College, color commentator and ex-Georgia Tech head coach (and one-time Notre Dame coaching target) Bobby Cremins noted of the Irish, "They have the best starting five in basketball. I really think so."
Two observations regarding that comment:
1. Imagine hearing that at any point in your Notre Dame viewing lifetime since at least 1981. And,
2. Slow your roll, Coach…
They don't, of course, but Brey's starting quintet plus top two subs do possess the rare quality of "Gestalt," translated from German to illustrate that "the whole is other than the sum of its parts."
Notre Dame's top five players have plenty of talent if recruiting stars are to believed -- a combined 19, with a quartet of four-star prospects and one three-star, the latter guy named "Grant." They don't have an obvious weakness necessary to a singular position other than the reality that big man Zach Auguste is more comfortable on the move than he is anchored in the low post, an area from which he can pass but not consistently score.
But it's their ability to play off of each other, to maximize strengths and mitigate weaknesses, that has forged a 24-4 record and 12-3 mark in ACC play.
They are greater than the sum of their parts.
3. THE FATAL FLAW?
For the first time since Kelly Tripucka, Tracy Jackson, John Paxson, and the late Orlando Woolridge took the floor together in the 1980-81 season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have a basketball program that is of Elite 8 caliber.
Not just Sweet 16 potential -- they've had roughly eight or nine of those since the early 80s: 1986, *1987, perhaps 1992, plus 2002, *2003, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2011 -- the latter ranking far and away as the most disappointing finishers.
The current crew is not just a fun regular season story, one likely to end in a one-and-done NCAA effort, but an elite group with the chance to do something special.
And if you're of Elite 8 caliber, that means getting to the Final Four doesn't have to be a pipe dream.
But from my perspective, that Elite 8 level and Final Four potential remains out of reach, because to do so, Brey's Irish will have to fly in the face of two accepted basketball realities:
1. No rebounds, no rings
2. Protect your rim at all costs
Notre Dame rebounds below an acceptable level for a top tier team, and its interior defense isn't at a championship level -- it's the latter will likely be exposed at critical mass during both the less-relevant ACC Tournament and all-important Field of 68 to follow.
To date, Brey has accepted the reality of weakness No. 1 (they cannot be a great rebounding team as constructed) and has masterfully allowed his squad to benefit from it -- his small ball approach has forced the ACC's best teams (plus Michigan State) to adjust to them, not the other way around.
Teams go small in a reactionary measure to Notre Dame because if they don't, they can't keep up with the Irish on the other end. "You want the occasional second-chance bucket? That's okay, because our 5-4 run over the last three possessions mitigates its damage."
After all, a team can be out-rebounded in three straight NCAA games and win each of them.
But weakness No. 2, the inability to defend their own rim -- that's going to be an issue. The death knell. The fatal flaw.
There's not a rim protector among the lot. The best position post defender is six-foot-five wing with long arms, and the team's collective weak side help is at the level of NCAA qualifier; not NCAA bracket barron.
In short, the inability to protect the rim makes it hard for Notre Dame to get away from a quality foe unless the top-tier Irish offense is clicking on all cylinders. When they inevitably go cold for a small stretch, as they did at Pittsburgh in defeat, as they did at home against Virginia, as they're prone to do against rugged defenses (and all collegiate offenses fall victim to this, not just the Irish), the impact of Notre Dame's points aplenty approach doesn't result in the absolute burying of a solid foe.
They don't have to be perfect anymore, as Grant's offensive greatness makes up for plenty of mistakes, but points can and will be had inside Notre Dame's loosely protected paint.
The inability to fully separate from foes will cause post-season anxieties.
To combat the current issues, Notre Dame will either have to rebound en masse when they face a foe in the Round of 32 (and they hope, the Round of 16), or become much tougher defending the rim.
The latter can only be achieved through smarter fouls and a more determined effort from Auguste four fouls and a few more minutes per game from Colson, and four hard fouls and perhaps a few floor burns given and received from Torres.
In short, to reach their welcomed, readjusted potential, they'll have to overcome a potentially fatal flaw.