BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Only one person has been with Mike Brey since his arrival at Notre Dame in 2000, and that’s Rod Balanis, who joined Brey’s staff as coordinator of basketball operations and was promoted to assistant coach three years later.
Heading into the East Regional pod in Brooklyn, Balanis was assigned scouting responsibilities for Stephen F. Austin with fellow assistants Anthony Solomon handling the winner of Michigan-Tulsa and Martin Ingelsby on West Virginia duty.
Of course, most expected Ingelsby’s work on the Mountaineers to be the pertinent scouting report if the Irish got by the Wolverines. But it was the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin from Nacogdoches, Texas that pulled off the upset, and it was done in convincing fashion.
Saturday, during Notre Dame’s preparation day for Brad Underwood’s Lumberjacks, Irish Illustrated visited with Balanis to get the lowdown on Stephen F. Austin.
Stephen F. Austin’s calling card is its full-court, pressure defense, which helped the Lumberjacks lead the nation in turnovers forced at 18.6 per game. This is particularly concerning for Notre Dame, which has coughed it up 16 times per game over the last three against Duke, North Carolina and Michigan.
Stephen F. Austin is led by 6-foot-4, 195-pound forward Thomas Walkup, the two-time Southland Conference player of the year.
The main thing we’re going to have to deal with, and something we struggled with against North Carolina last Friday in Washington, D.C., is the ability to complete passes in the half court.
A lot of times teams that press don’t really rotate. But because of their size and they’re quickness, they rotate and take a lot of charges.
That’s definitely going to be a challenge against Stephen F. Austin. Hopefully, the difference is that North Carolina has 6-foot-10 guys that are rotating over. Stephen F. Austin doesn’t have that kind of size, so if we can be cool with the ball – which we have struggled with in the last couple games, especially in the first half – we’ve got a chance to win.
I was impressed watching them on tape. But to see them do it in person against West Virginia is a different thing. We’re familiar with West Virginia. We know the way (Bob) Huggins plays. That was impressive.
West Virginia doesn’t have the guards that can take you off the bounce and that are good with the ball. It ended up playing out that way and they turned it over 22 times. That was a killer. Conversely, Stephen F. Austin handled West Virginia’s pressure. They turned it over just seven times.
Stephen F. Austin has the kid, (Trey) Pinkney, the (5-foot-9) little guy who did an excellent job handling the ball and the pressure. He doesn’t score, he doesn’t shoot it, but the stuff that you teach kids – the reverse dribble against pressure that Mike always emphasizes when you’re playing a team like that – is second nature to Pinkney.
Be strong, maybe split a trap, that kid did that like 25 times, like you’d teach in a clinic. He did that against some big guys. He didn’t get stripped and he made the safe pass.
Pinkney was the nation’s top assist-to-turnover ratio guy for most of the year. They’re used to that kind of style, so I don’t think it really affected him.
West Virginia likes to run these high-post sets where they try to bury you. But they couldn’t complete the high-post pass. Guys were stripping them from behind. They couldn’t even get into that stuff. So I felt like West Virginia needed to go to something different, and I don’t think they had the guards to do that. That’s what you need against these guys.
Stephen F. Austin has really taken defense to a high level. Their opponents have 383 assists and 618 turnovers. You never see that. It’s unbelievable. I know the competition and what it is. But that’s impressive.
I talked to an assistant in their league and (SFA) has taken it to another level as the year has gone on because they get some JUCO guys who can rotate and get there. It’s one thing when you can really pressure the ball and you can deny and all that stuff, but a lot of times you give up layups because your rotations are bad. Their rotations are very good.
Thomas Walkup is the two-time player of the year in the Southland Conference, and any time you do that, I don’t care what league you’re in, you’re a terrific player.
I thought he was the toughest guy on the court in the West Virginia game. He came up with every loose ball. What makes him unique is he plays the four-spot for them, but he also handles the ball a lot, he leads the break, and he’s a very smart basketball player.
For a guy who’s been the two-time conference player of the year, he’s not a pig. He goes out there and gets the other guys shots. He’s very unselfish. He’s got great footwork.
They put him in a lot of situations in their offense where he’s isolated. He has great footwork on his shot fakes. He got to the line 20 times against West Virginia (making 19). We’ve got to be very disciplined in our (defensive) stance. He’s not the greatest three-point shooter in the world, so we’ve got to play him as a driver first.
The other thing that was very impressive, especially against West Virginia, which is one of the leading rebounding teams in the country, is that he doesn’t accept any block-outs. We’ll probably have one of our wing guys, probably Steve Vasturia, matchup on him. We have to make sure we get a physical block-out on him.
Steve’s got to guard him, but we’ve got to switch it up a little bit, too. When (Rex) Pflueger comes in and we need to give Steve a break, Pflueger can do that job. I thought Pflueger did a great job for us defensively in the second half against Michigan. We’ll likely need him to do that again.