LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Mike Brey has done it so often this time of the year that it’s taken for granted. It’s come to be expected.
No, this isn’t about fizzling in the NCAA tournament, which his most ferocious critics will cling to as they anxiously await a chance to shoot down all that’s been accomplished during the 2014-15 regular season.
Brey and the coaching staff of Anthony Solomon, Rod Balanis and Martin Ingelsby once again devised a way to – if not reinvent the wheel – turn it in such a way so that it rolled smoothly along the hardwood.
Think about this for a second: Notre Dame pressed and dribble-penetrated its way to a 71-59 victory over the Cardinals at the KFC Yum! Center Wednesday night to clinch a third-place finish in just its second year in the ACC.
Over the course of Rick Pitino’s remarkable 30-year college coaching career, that hasn’t happened very often.
“We call it ’23 extended,’” said Brey of Notre Dame’s three-quarter court trap, which forced Louisville into nine first-half turnovers and created six Irish steals en route to building an 11-point halftime cushion.
“It’s just our zone extended. I watched the Duke game and zone bothered (Louisville) a little bit. We got to it before the first media timeout and then we started to extend it. All of a sudden they’re attacking our zone with maybe 23 seconds left on the (shot) clock.”
And with Louisville’s woefully insufficient half-court offense, that was just enough to withstand an early second-half charge as the Cardinals wiped out Notre Dame’s 42-31 advantage.
But before long, Notre Dame was on a 25-12 run to end the game and the Irish had notched their 13th victory out of 17 ACC games as well as a seventh conference road win – two more than any previous season since they joined the Big East in 1995-96.
Only Virginia with eight road wins (and a chance for a ninth at Louisville this weekend) will have more conference road victories in the ACC than Notre Dame with Duke taking a crack at its seventh W away from home Saturday at North Carolina.
Louisville, which raced to a national title a couple of years ago with its Peyton Siva-Russ Smith-led guard play, is a shell of the teams Pitino has put on the court during his 14-year run in Louisville, where he has averaged 26 victories per season.
If he doesn’t reach that number this season, he’ll at least approach it with a decimated backcourt in the aftermath of losing Chris Jones to permanent dismissal, which Brey deftly exposed.
“You’re always disappointed when you lose, but Notre Dame was the better basketball team,” Pitino said. “Even including Kentucky, out of all the teams we scouted this year, we thought this would be our most difficult game, especially when Chris Jones went out.”
Demetrius Jackson, Jerian Grant and Steve Vasturia in particular penetrated the Louisville defense, which is at least part of the reason Pitino has turned to a zone defense so frequently this year. His defense can’t consistently stop dribble penetration, and although the Cardinals average five blocked shots per game in ACC play, they don’t have a human eraser like Gorgui Dieng from a couple of years ago who could correct on the back end the mistakes made on the front end.
“It’s one of our problems, and defending the pick-and-roll running into screens was another problem,” said Pitino Wednesday night. “It’s very obvious that (freshman) Quentin Snider doesn’t play defense because Peyton Siva was not good on defense as a freshman and neither was Russ Smith.
“(Snider) was supposed to learn, back it up, and get better. He’s thrown into a situation where it’s not his fault. He’s out there right now and you can see he’s making defensive mistakes, but he was supposed to have a year to learn that.”
The Yum! Center, which has been a torture chamber for most visitors, has become a venue where Notre Dame has won two of the last three times in a rivalry that has seen the Irish win in Louisville just thrice in 13 attempts since the sporadic series began in 1952.
They’re playing on a regular basis now since the two old Big East teams have settled into their new digs in the ACC, and right now, the Irish are more settled into their environment in their second year than the Cardinals are in their first. Case in point: Notre Dame has won more ACC road games this year than Louisville has won ACC home games.
“Just adding to our road resume,” said Jackson, who tossed in an ACC career-high 21 points to raise his conference road average to 13.3 points per game while shooting 50.6 percent (41-of-81) in road conference play.
“We just have a mentality. Coach always says road dogs, so we just come out like dogs and try to have a better mentality. We just have to keep developing on the road because that’s where we’re going to have to win games in March.
“That’s one thing we can do going forward,” added Jackson of Notre Dame’s backcourt pressure. “We didn’t really pressure the ball as a team the whole year. I think that’s one thing we can do that can help us in March.”
Brey also has tapped into a double-big man tandem of freshman/off-the-bench sensation Bonzie Colson and on-again, off-again junior Zach Auguste, who fell into early foul trouble and didn’t find any kind of rhythm until Brey paired them up down the stretch for the second game in a row.
Colson finished with 17 points on 7-of-7 shooting from the field to go along with a team-high nine rebounds. Colson is averaging 16.3 points per game in the last three, and his presence on the court with Auguste helps loosen things up for the 6-foot-10 junior.
“We love winning on the road,” Colson said. “That’s something we’ve done the whole year. It’s a great feeling for us to come in here and get a great team win.”
“The only time I take him out is if he’s fatigued a little bit. He plays so hard,” said Brey of Colson, who logged a career-high 26 minutes against Louisville.
“It’s a beautiful story. It’s a kid that was really confident. You’ve heard me say he’s been able to deliver like this because his attitude was so good the first half of the season when he wasn’t playing. He wasn’t whining, he wasn’t complaining. He cheered for Zach Auguste and Austin Torres more than anybody.
“Then when you call on him, (he’s) purer, (his) mind is clearer and (he) can deliver. He’s energized the rest of our players. Our guys love having him in there.”
For the first time since the 2010-11 season and just the fourth time in his 15 seasons at Notre Dame, Brey – whose Irish are 25-5 overall and 13-4 in ACC play – will finish a season with single-digit losses.
There are numerous reasons why the Irish have been able to turn things around since last year’s dismal 15-17, 6-12 campaign. One, because Brey is vastly underrated as a tactician, which he proved once again Wednesday in a difficult environment against a Hall of Fame coach.
Two, because Notre Dame has what Pitino has had so many seasons – a real quality backcourt – and that was with first-team all-ACC and conference player-of-the-year candidate Jerian Grant a bit off his mark Wednesday with five turnovers.
“Our guards have been there all year, and tonight, they were fabulous,” Brey said. “They were really good, and when you have good guards, you’ve got a shot to have fun in March.”
Let the March fun begin. It’s long overdue.