THE FATAL FLAW?
Did Notre Dame’s defense improve incrementally – and intermittently? – Saturday afternoon or did Pittsburgh’s collective shooting arms merely tire from too much (open) jump shot practice?
It was likely a bit of both as the Panthers suffered a regression to the norm, because no team can continue on the blistering 9 for 13 pace from beyond the arc Pittsburgh enjoyed, and the Irish defensive intensity certainly increased as they fell behind 28-10 and later 73-67.
The team’s best player, junior point guard Demetrius Jackson, noted the Irish needed to “grow up” and play like “men.” Head coach Mike Brey offered his squad failed to play with defensive intelligence and toughness simultaneously.
Agreed on all counts, which begs the question: Why?
Notre Dame learned last season that defensive intensity, regardless of a team’s inherent limitations on that end, is a prerequisite for contenders. At present, the Irish defend at an NIT level (and at times Saturday, a CYO level), which is a shame, because the offense remains promising and is merely a tier short of last year’s group that ranked among the nation’s five best.
Drastic change is necessary to improve the squad’s defensive focus, and though the following isn’t a whole-game recommendation or possibility, perhaps Brey should take a page from ex-Temple head coach John Chaney’s manual, at least at the beginning of this week’s home contest against Georgia Tech: If you’re scored upon, you come out of the game. Period.
Something has to change or the Irish will play in front of 2,500 uninterested fans in an NIT home game this March, destroying any momentum gained by last year’s memorable run.
IMPROVEMENT BEGINS IN AUGUSTE
Last March included the following enviable pecking order in terms of players on which Brey could rely:
Jerian Grant #1, Pat Connaughton #2 (1B), Jackson #3, Zach Auguste #4, Steve Vasturia #5 (or 4B), Bonzie Colson #6 (or 5A) and, prior to his end-season swoon, V.J. Beachem #7.
After Grant and Connaughton took their acts to the NBA, it was incumbent upon the remaining quintet to elevate their games to a level commensurate with a true #1 (as Jackson has), a true #3 (as Vasturia usually has) and a true #4 (Colson, ditto) and #5 (Beachem, ditto).
You see the hole in that string, and fittingly, it’s in the middle, because Zach Auguste, at least against real teams, is not at present a bona fide #2 college basketball player. Not consistently, and not for a contender.
It’s not for a lack of trying or caring or certainly ability, but the head of a champion is, at present, absent, and so too is the knowledge of his own strengths (great hands, coordination, pick-and-roll acumen, transition prowess) and weaknesses (free throws and the LOW BLOCK! GET OFF THE LOW BLOCK!) that he seemed to embrace and understand late last season.
Notre Dame will be stuck in a .500 conference-record quagmire until Auguste broaches – not to mention embraces – his potential. Or perhaps until Brey mandates it.
BETTER TO LOSE?
Staked to a 1-2 conference start – and saddled with three nonconference losses – it’s hard to argue Brey’s Irish will be better off in the long run for their home loss Saturday. It’s clear Notre Dame must win at least 7 of its nine home league games (that’s now seven of its remaining eight) to have a chance at a 10-8 conference record – the minimum that will be considered for NCAA Tournament selection.
But lessons were learned Saturday afternoon, and Pittsburgh is a bona fide tournament team. In other words, it was a home loss, not a bad loss. If Notre Dame plays to its potential on both sides of the court – i.e., Top 15 level offense and an acceptable defense – it will appear every bit an NCAA qualifier in the eyes of the Selection Committee.
Sometimes a loss serves as a wakeup call. Sometimes being embarrassed on your home floor – and that’s definitively what happened for the bulk of Saturday’s contest, a game in which the Irish never led nor threatened to lead – provides the catalyst needed for a team that played its entire sterling 2014-15 season with a chip on its collective shoulder.
That chip is missing today. It’s missing for the 9-5 overall; 1-2 in-conference Irish.
The loss might be enough to necessitate change whereas a miracle win would have been celebrated but likely done nothing to change the squad’s laissez-faire approach to defense, rebounding, and a loose ball on the floor.
They have no reason to feel good about themselves. And that’s a good thing.