O'Malley's Key Three

Notre Dame couldn't find the range Tuesday night, but it might have found a way to fight in the future.

1. WHO ARE YOU, AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH NOTRE DAME?
They had more turnovers, a whopping 14, than assists, 11.

They missed more three-point shots (19) than they attempted in half of their 12 ACC victories to date.

Flummoxed and frustrated by Syracuse's reenergized 2-3 zone, Notre Dame's normally crisp perimeter passing game looked decidedly average. The end result was a 17 for 49 shooting effort that included a difficult-to-believe 3 for 22 from beyond the arc.

"One thing you can take out of it is we need a little work against zone," said Irish senior captain Pat Connaughton. "I think we can move the ball a little faster. At times the ball may have been moving but we were standing. When you're standing and you're not close enough to the three-point line to be a threat, they really don't have to play pressure D, they can just sit back in their zone.

"Get into the gaps, be low when you catch it, and just put pressure on the defense like you do against man-to-man, and try to carry some of those principles over."

An overreaction from fans and pundits is inevitable after Tuesday's offensive debacle. But after one ugly 40-minute affair that "Notre Dame can't beat a good zone" is as ludicrous a theory as since-debunked gems such as "Phil Mickelson can't win a major," or "LeBron James can't perform in the clutch."

All the necessary tools are present for the Irish to succeed when faced with an active, focused zone defense in the coming weeks: They have knock down shooters, tremendous passing acumen as a unit, a star that can get into gaps and find open teammates from any angle, and emerging, improving strengths inside (more on that below).

What they did last night was miss shots. Almost all of them.

"They missed threes," said Syracuse Hall of Fame head coach Jim Boehiem. "Look, Notre Dame makes threes, that's how they beat you. When they shoot 3 of 22 you should beat them."

Irish head coach Mike Brey scoffed at (twice) the postulation that his team "overanalyzed its approach" against Syracuse's zone. But after missing a few good looks early, it appeared the perimeter talent collectively felt discretion was indeed the better part of valor rather than perhaps letting a decent look fly.

That includes All-America candidate Jerian Grant, who didn't attempt an official shot (he was fouled and received free throws, previously) until the 18:42 mark of the second half.

"All of the above," said Brey of what bothered his offense, be it length, quickness, or other. "We couldn't get Jerian a shot. I think he probably was a little overly unselfish. Would have love to seen him drive it. I think some of our younger guys struggled against the length of their zone. First-time really playing against it for a long period of time."

Sophomores Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, and V.J. Beachem shot a combined 0 for 9 from long range vs. the Orange; 3 for 16 overall. Grant struggled through six missed three-point shots though three occurred during the game's desperate final 20 seconds. He did not hit a shot that wasn't a layup, finishing just 2 for 9 from the field, though Grant's 9 for 12 free throw effort plus nine assists kept the Irish close.

"We did a good job of scouting them and we knew that a lot of their points come from threes," said Orange forward B.J. Johnson, he of the game-high 19 points. "So whenever the ball got to the high post, instead of dropping like we usually do, we stayed out in the corner handmade them put the ball on the floor and make tough shots."

Sometimes the other team simply plays better. Especially when they're a program such as Syracuse.

2. COLSON CONTINUES, BUT SO DOES JACKSON
Connaughton might be the default player of the game for Notre Dame Tuesday night -- it's hard to argue against his 15 rebounds to go along with 13 points, a block, and a steal while serving as the only Irish player to hit a three-point shot (3-7).

(As an aside: Fifteen rebounds!)

But his lone partner in prime-time in an otherwise lost evening was emerging freshman Bonzie Colson. A team-high 16 points, five rebounds, three steals, a blocked shot, and an 8 of 9 shooting effort from the charity stripe. An economical use of his 19 minutes.

The latter number is likely to change.

"He's been amazing. He's such a gamer. I'm so proud of him," said Brey. "He's so disappointed when we (lose). He's such a team guy. I mentioned his attitude through the first 15 games when I didn't even play him. And he was so pure, cheering his teammates on.

"The veteran guys are really confident in him now. they want him in the game. These minutes keep creeping up for Bonzie Colson, what was it, 19 tonight? Maybe it'll creep up to 23 down in Louisville."

In contrast to Colson's nascent presence is the recent, but now undeniable home court slide of sophomore Demetrius Jackson. Solid throughout the season *on the road and in neutral site outings, Jackson has struggled mightily in his hometown arena, hitting just 14 of his last 45 field goal attempts over a seven-game span. (Over his last three games at the Purcell Pavilion, Jackson has missed 13 of 15 field goal attempts.)

The apparent good news is for Jackson is the Irish play only one more game at home this season. The bad news for Notre Dame's pursuit of future goals is that regardless where the Irish have played of late, Jackson appears to **defer too much to Grant, the dominant playmaker that has possessed the basketball more over the last month than he did during December and January when Jackson had emerged as one of the nation's most improved players.

The Irish offense needs Jackson to be a definitive third option. If not, the domino effect won't be pretty in the forthcoming Field of 68.

*With one road game remaining, Jackson has connected on 35 of his 70 field goal attempts in ACC play outside of South Bend. He's likewise drilled a remarkable 17 of 25 shot attempts from the field in three neutral site games against solid foes UMass, Providence, and Purdue. Only neutral-site games await from mid-March through season's end.

**In terms of his perceived deference to Grant, it bears out in Jackson's ball distribution. After 27 assists dished during the team's first eight league games, Jackson's total over the ensuing eight dropped to just 15.

3. NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF (RE)INVENTION
A funny thing happened on the way to league loss No. 4 for Notre Dame Tuesday night:

The Irish found another way to attack.

For the first time this season, at least in competitive action, starting power forward Zach Auguste and his understudy Colson performed in congress. Colson starred, Auguste competed, and the Irish made hay by going big -- or at least their version of big, considering Colson doesn't approach six-feet-six inches in height.

"It's something we've looked at in practice and I think it's something we have to come back to," said Brey of playing both Colson and Auguste rather than his requisite rotation between the two. "We're bigger that way, we're able to get some second shots, and Bonzie's just playing so darn well right now.

"It's one of those things we went to and I thought it helped us in the second half, playing bigger. We were better on the defensive boards, we got some second shots. We have to get reps at that moving forward down the stretch especially as we get ready for the post-season."

Syracuse isn't the last opponent that will bother the Irish inside, and on both ends of the court, to boot. There's plenty of fight left in these Irish, but more important, an alternative approach to Brey's standard "four around one" offense appears viable when the preferred perimeter attack isn't clicking.

Or when shots aren't falling.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories