CLEVELAND – At times, it can look like a layup drill on the defensive end of the floor.
That’s because during Notre Dame’s current eight-game winning streak – the last two games of the regular season, three in the ACC tournament and three in the NCAA tournament – the Irish (32-5) have been absolutely brilliant defending the three-point line.
The flip side is that opponents get a lot of point-blank looks at the basket. Of course, they need it because Notre Dame has been absolutely stifling around the arc.
In the last nine games – dating back to a home loss against Syracuse, followed by the current eight-game skein – opponents have converted just 37-of-154 three-point attempts for an anemic 24.0 percent.
Here’s the breakdown:
• Syracuse 4-of-16 (.250)
• Louisville 4-of-17 (.235)
• Clemson 4-of-18 (.222)
• Miami 5-of-20 (.250)
• Duke 3-of-17 (.176)
• North Carolina 7-of-24 (.292)
• Northeastern 3-of-11 (.273)
• Butler 4-of-13 (.308)
• Wichita State 3-18 (.167)
The fact that Butler’s 30.8 percent has been the high-water mark among the previous nine opponents speaks volumes. Five of those teams – Duke (26th .389), Northeastern (32nd .386), Wichita State (88th .362), Butler (118th .356) and North Carolina (135th .351) – rank among the upper half in the nation in three-point shooting. Yet the Irish held those five foes to a combined 20-of-83 (24.0 percent).
“It’s been big, that’s huge, and we’ve got to keep coming back to that,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, who loves to play the percentages by exchanging threes for twos, which becomes critical when the Irish start their own three-point barrage.
“(Defending) that arc is something we’ve been very disciplined with, and it takes a sharp, focused group to continually do that with every possession.”
Leading the way defending the three-point line is sophomore Steve Vasturia, who almost always gets the assignment on the opponent’s top scorer, which usually translates into clamping down on the opponent’s top three-point shooter.
Vasturia did it again in Thursday’s 81-70 victory over Wichita State. Leading scorer Ron Baker came into the game with 78 three-pointers while shooting 38.4 percent. Baker finished with just nine points on 2-of-10 shooting from the field and a modest 2-of-6 from beyond the arc.
“We knew they had some efficient three-point shooters, so we definitely made a point of trying to run them off the three-point line, especially both their guards,” Vasturia said.
“We try to make them put it on the floor, and we did a good job as a team helping and recovering.”
Notre Dame’s next opponent – 37-0 and No. 1-ranked Kentucky – doesn’t rely nearly as much on three-point shooting because, quite frankly, the Wildcats don’t have to.
The Wildcats pound you inside with 7-foot-0 Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-foot-11 Karl-Anthony Towns, 6-foot-10 Trey Lyles, and 7-foot-0 Dakari Johnson. The Irish have attempted nearly 200 more three-pointers and have made 102 more than Kentucky.
While ranking 156th in the country in three-point accuracy – converting a middle-of-the-road 34.4 percent – the Wildcats will bludgeon you inside, attempting 72.2 percent of their shots from two-point range. Notre Dame shoots 62 percent of its shots from two-point range.
Brey has eschewed doubling down on opposing team’s big men for fear of getting gashed from the three-point line, but the Irish might not have a choice against the Wildcats, particularly since the three-point shot is a secondary phase to their offensive approach.
In the journey to the ACC championship and now the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame has used their defense of the three-point arc to perfection. It remains to be seen how the Irish will try to counterattack Kentucky’s around-the-rim approach.