BACKBOARD BLUES/PAINT CHIPS
Contending with the big boys on the backboards is an annual concern for Mike Brey.
As a four-around-one coach who prefers as many shooters on the court as possible, scoring generally takes precedent over rebounding.
When Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson were on the team the previous two seasons, Brey could always turn to a lineup with two bigs to abate if not completely solve the problem.
Brey has nowhere to turn this year with the ever-present Colson, but a struggling Martin Geben, an offensively-challenged Austin Torres who gives away size on the glass, and two untested youngsters (John Mooney and Elijah Burns).
In Saturday’s valiant 83-76 loss in the Greensboro Coliseum to No. 12 North Carolina – after trailing by 15, the Irish cut it to two with under four minutes left -- the Tar Heels, the nation’s rebounding differential leader (plus-13½), held a decisive 44-25 advantage, including a commanding 17-7 win on the offensive glass.
“We knew we were going to have to absorb a pounding in the paint because we played small,” Brey said. “It helped us get back in the thing. But we just couldn’t get over the hump. Some of their stuff in the paint down the stretch finally broke our spirit.”
If it were just rebounding that suffered, the Irish (17-7, 6-5) probably wouldn’t be in the throes of a four-game losing streak after opening conference play with five straight wins and a 6-1 start. But the inability to rebound on the defensive glass leads to immediate, easy points.
The Tar Heels scored 40 of their 83 points in the paint, which allowed them to compensate for 6-of-17 shooting from three-point range and 17-of-28 from the free-throw line. The Tar Heels made 24-of-44 (54.5 percent) of their two-point attempts.
Is there a solution to Notre Dame’s woes now that the season has gone from aspirations of a double-bye in the ACC tournament to needing four wins in the last seven games to assure an NCAA tournament bid?
Probably not a definitive solution, unless Mooney suddenly gets some playing time and makes a substantial difference. In the meantime, it’s keep doing what you do best to compensate for the inability to do solid work around the glass, beyond Colson.
Otherwise, the Irish/Brey will ride their assets, which Saturday were the shooting of V.J. Beachem (20 points, 6-of-12 shooting from the field, 6-of-6 from the line), the competitiveness and shooting of Matt Farrell (18 points, 7-of-12 on field goals, 4-of-8 from three), and Colson, who recorded his 14th double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) of the season and eighth in 11 ACC games.
“We scored it,” said Brey when asked to explain Notre Dame’s 42 second-half points/offensive uptick.
“We opened the floor up. Playing small was the only way we were going to have a chance. V.J. got going and we rode it as long as we could.”
Veteran Steve Vasturia remained mired in a shooting slump. He finished with nine points on 4-of-11 shooting, including 0-of-4 from three-point range. That comes on the heels of a 0-of-5 shooting effort from beyond the arc against Duke.
In the last three games, Vasturia has scored just 21 points and has missed 12-of-13 three-point attempts.
The off-the-bench tandem of Rex Pflueger and T.J. Gibbs continues to be an asset. They combined for 10 points, including a pair of threes by Pflueger in the first half, although their contributions in a collective 41 minutes of playing time (two assists, two rebounds) can be sporadic.
Geben’s game has regressed. He’s only played 23 minutes in the last three games with four points and four rebounds. Torres’ effort remains noteworthy, as evidenced by his 16 rebounds in the last 62 minutes (spanning six games). But he’s scored just four points in those six games.
If there is a solution, it’s continue to try to ride Colson, Farrell and Beachem, get Vasturia back in the groove, and get some time for Mooney to see if he’s a viable option after sitting most of the season.
At least the Irish returned to form at the charity stripe against North Carolina.
In its previous four losses, the Irish were just 63-of-87 (67.6 percent) from the free-throw line after shooting at a record-setting clip.
Notre Dame made 17-of-20 free throws against North Carolina, including 6-of-6 by Beachem and 4-of-4 by Gibbs.
The Irish must take advantage of a remaining ACC schedule that should yield at least four and perhaps five victories, beginning with Wake Forest Tuesday night at Purcell Pavilion.
Wake Forest (5-6 in ACC) at home, Florida State (8-3) at home, at Boston College (2-9), at N.C. State (3-8), Georgia Tech (5-6) at home, Boston College (2-9) at home and at Louisville (7-3) gives the Irish an opportunity to finish strong.
Despite falling to 1-6 versus ranked opponents, Notre Dame would make the NCAA tournament with a 10-8 mark in a league that will yield as many as 10 teams in the Big Dance. The Irish probably would make it at 9-9.
After playing against ranked teams in three of the last four games, the Irish face just one ranked team – Florida State – in the next six games. Only the Seminoles have a winning record in ACC play at the present time.