A 38-MINUTE (AND COUNTING) DRAUGHT
Twenty made field goals in 56 attempts on Saturday, followed by just 17 that hit home on 50 shots Wednesday. A combined 17 turnovers and just 18 assists over the same two-game span.
The two lowest scoring games and worst shooting efforts of the 2016 season, and last night, a 21-3 deficit against No. 7 Miami in a contest that could have pulled Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish into a tie for third place in the ACC Standings.
Notre Dame’s ongoing but only slump of the 2016 calendar year is ill timed: one regular season game remains – one chance to get back on course for a team that appeared, just two weeks ago, poised for another post-season run.
Instead, over a 38-minute span of basketball beginning near the 10-minute mark of the first half at Florida State Saturday and the opening eight minutes last night, Notre Dame was outscored by the Seminoles and Hurricanes by a combined score of 73 to 42.
The point spreads preceding those contests favored Notre Dame by two points in both.
As the famed poet laureate of the 1980s NBA, Micheal Ray Richardson once mused: “The ship be sinkin’.”
And while Brey searched for post-game answers, Hurricanes dynamo point guard Angel Rodriguez aptly summed up the events of the evening.
"I thought we were more physical than them. It seemed like we wanted it more."
It sure did.
Somehow still possessing a 50/50 shot at a double bye in the upcoming ACC Tournament (a Duke loss at home to North Carolina and a Notre Dame win at home against N.C. State would provide a fourth-place regular season finish for the Irish), Brey’s seven-man rotation remains flawed and a solid two reliable competitors short of national contention.
They are not, however, this bad.
The same squad that fell behind 12-0 and 21-3 Wednesday found a way to defeat national powers Iowa, Duke, North Carolina and Louisville this season. They likewise took Indiana to the wire. But the current state of the Irish is in need of an overhaul.
And there’s only one viable answer…
AUGUSTE AND COLSON, NOT EITHER OR…
Spacing is great. Spacing was the key differentiator between Notre Dame 2015 and the rest of the college basketball world.
And that ideal spacing and resulting offensive flow – plus a healthy dose of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton – was the impetus that allowed Brey’s Irish to end last April as as one of the nation’s five, perhaps four best basketball teams.
As important as Grant was to that attack – and he was definitively the straw that stirred the drink; an all-time master of the high pick-and-roll – Connaughton has proven after the fact to be as crucial.
As a “stretch four” (power forward), the six-foot four-inch Connaughton rebounded better than 95 percent of the forwards he faced and shot the three-pointer better than at least that many, guards included.
In other words, it was his unique, ideally suited skill set that provided the difficult to defend difference.
In his stead this season is a combination of V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson, and Matt Ryan. None among the trio can perform either crucial task as well or, more important, as consistently as did Connaughton. Colson is the closest to that end, an undersized forward with 10-rebound potential and reasonably speaking, a 16- to 20-point ceiling each night. But those points won’t often come from outside 15 feet.
It’s time to stop tinkering with spacing, with the staff’s preferred “4-around-1” attack, and to embrace their best players. Colson is arguably third in that regard and no lower than the fourth. He, along with fellow big man Zach Auguste, HAVE TO be on the floor together against quality foes, because the squad’s other options aren’t yet NCAA Tournament worthy.
Beachem and/or Ryan can provide respite and perhaps an incidental hot hand over the next three (minimum) or six (dare to dream) games that remain in the 2016 season.
But Notre Dame won’t beat anyone with a pulse if it tries to play without Colson as a key cog in the attack.
"I thought bringing Bonzie off the bench would help, maybe we would get him back into junkyard dog mode,” said Brey of A.J. Burgett’s starting assignment. “Last time we brought him off the bench he got on a great run. I want to still do that because I think we got on a nice run with him doing that."
Colson can come off the bench as Brey prefers, but that “sixth-man status” has to be a matter of semantics. And if Beachem were to be removed from the starting lineup his already shaky confidence level would plummet.
Both Colson deserves the lion’s share of minutes among them.
Further, while we’re introducing logic to the remaining equation, allow me to add another personnel-related notion: Rex Pflueger’s defense and scrappiness is far more valuable than anything Beachem, Ryan, or the enigmatic Burgett (four minutes – the first four minutes only, last night) add at present.
He’s Notre Dame’s fifth best player at present and could prove invaluable if provided the opportunity.
IRISH GUARDS DOMINATED
A perfect storm greeted Notre Dame’s normally solid guard duo of Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia last night. The former, still struggling with his jumper since returning from a late-January hamstring strain, and the latter, whose outside touch has recently following suit, ran into the nation’s most seasoned and, at present, most impressive backcourt.
Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan.
Both transfers to Coral Gables after contributing as true freshmen elsewhere (Kansas State and Texas, respectively), the pair combined for 36 points, 10 boards, and 5 assists on 12 of 24 shooting including 5 of 10 from long range.
Jackson and Vasturia responded with their worst combined effort of the last two seasons: 3 for 22 from the field with just three boards and six assists.
McClellan seemed intent on harassing Vasturia for 40 minutes defensively and he succeeded to that end as the junior captain missed each of his nine shots, that on the heels of a 2 for 8 shooting effort in Tallahassee over the weekend.
“Everyone just wants to play again,” said Vasturia of the lost evening. “Saturday needs to come as soon as possible. There’s still time to get back to where we need to be.”
There is, and a strong outing against the Wolfpack could buoy the capable Irish to a win or two in Washington D.C. next week – perhaps two wins the weekend thereafter.
But not if Vasturia and Jackson don’t lead the way.