CLEVELAND – It is the ultimate Catch 22, the six-of-one, half-dozen-of-the-other dilemma that has – along with a multitude of other vexing issues created by playing against undefeated and No. 1-ranked Kentucky – sent 37 straight opponents to defeat.
In 7-foot-0, 242-pound Willie Cauley-Stein, 6-foot-10, 235-pound Trey Lyles, 6-foot-11, 255-pound Karl-Anthony Towns and 7-foot-0, 255-pound Dakari Johnson, the Wildcats form the world’s largest volleyball team on the backboards, which goes a long way toward explaining their No. 10 rebounding margin, No. 25 offensive rebounding rank, and their destructive dominance in the paint.
“Most teams have doubled-down pretty much in the post, and when they haven’t, it’s pretty hard for them to stop our bigs one-on-one,” said Lyles, concisely summarizing the dilemma facing No. 3-seed Notre Dame (32-5) Saturday night in the Midwest Regional finals at Quicken Loans Arena.
Doubling-down is not something Irish head coach Mike Brey wants to do. He’s been burned by three-point shooting teams often enough in the past to prompt him to pick your poison.
Brey’s drink of choice has been to take his chances on those one-on-one matchups in the paint, surrender a pretty heavy dose of two-point baskets, and avoid the mathematical equation that leads to a bevy of two-for-three point exchanges.
“We’re going to find out,” said Brey when asked if Notre Dame can afford not to double-down on Kentucky’s bigs. “We still have to be aware of that arc, even though they don’t shoot it as much as other teams we’ve played.
“We can absorb twos. I count on our offensive efficiency to eventually kick in. It’s certainly going to be a whole other challenge for our offensive efficiency against their defense, but we’re excited about the challenge.”
It’s a formula that has worked well for Notre Dame in winning its last eight games. The Irish have limited opponents to a mere 24.0 percent three-point shooting in recent weeks.
Kentucky does not rely nearly as much upon long-distance shooting as many others – particularly Notre Dame -- because, well, they simply don’t have to. The Wildcats are 273rd in the country in three-pointers made per game at 5.3. Notre Dame has attempted nearly 200 more and has made 102 more than Kentucky.
And yet the Irish don’t appear willing to abandon the game plan that has carried them to within a game of the program’s first Final Four appearance in 37 years.
“I don’t think we’re going to change our game plan,” said Irish captain Pat Connaughton. “I don’t think doubling-down is something we’re necessarily going to do because you’ve got to box them out and you have to be in position to box them out. I think that’s the biggest key.
“Obviously, we want to continue to have that three-point percentage go down because with the size they have, if they’re getting rebounds and they’re scoring around the basket and you add threes, that’s going to create a long night for us. We have to stick to our game plan, stick to our defense, run them off the three-point line and focus extremely hard on the defensive rebounding.”
Notre Dame allowed 21 offensive rebounds early in the season at North Carolina and still won. Thursday night against Wichita State, the Shockers grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, yet trailed by 19 points and lost by 11.
“It’s all got to start with the attention to detail and boxing out,” Connaughton added. “If we’re able to nullify their height to an extent, then maybe we can get out and run, do some offensive things that we’ve been good at all through the year.”
Another potential snag for Notre Dame – particularly if they choose to defend one-on-one in the paint -- is foul trouble. The Irish have been playing seven, occasionally eight players. Zach Auguste, Bonzie Colson and periodically Austin Torres serve as Notre Dame’s big men.
Auguste is 6-foot-10, but Colson is 6-foot-5 and Torres is 6-foot-7. Those are saplings compared to Kentucky’s battery of big men who could easily burn through Notre Dame’s fouls to give. Martin Geben, a 6-foot-9, 255-pound freshman is another alternative, but he hasn’t played meaningful minutes since early in the ACC schedule.
Could the Irish throw some zone at Kentucky? Not a bad idea since the Wildcats are just 166th nationally in three-point percentage (.344), but that potentially creates huge rebounding lanes to the backboards. The Irish have enough box-out issues in man, let alone zone.
“I’ve seen them do both,” said Kentucky head coach John Calipari of Notre Dame’s approach when the basketball gets in the post. “I’ve seen them scramble. I watched the North Carolina game a little bit. They’ll dig and get down in there, and if you bounce it, they’ll leave and trap that way.
“They just don’t automatically say we’re going big to big. (Brey) just doesn’t do it. But they do other things to try to screw you up.”
“Can we crowd off of some different guys on the perimeter?” Brey offered. “We started to do that at the end of the Duke game in Greensboro to make Okafor feel just a little bit uncomfortable.”
Kentucky’s top three-point shooters are sophomore Aaron Harrison and freshman Devin Booker. Harrison leads the team with 58 three-pointers, but he’s converting just 31.7 percent. Booker has converted 56 at a more efficient 40.6 percent. Aaron Harrison’s twin brother, Andrew, has made 35 three-pointers and converts at a 38.0 percent rate. Tyler Ulis, just 5-foot-9, has made 30 threes at a 41.1 percent clip.
Those are the players the Irish have to be aware of from beyond the arc, and then take their chances in the paint/on the backboards against Kentucky’s behemoths.
“It’s going to be tough, it’s going to be a challenge, but we’re going to have to be on our own down there, and we’re going to have to be able to hold our own,” Auguste said.
“I don’t want to sell out and have their guys lining up three-point shots,” Brey added. “It’s hard to absorb a bunch of threes. Then there are too many points on the board to overcome.”
There may be anyway.