At first, it wasn’t even the pressure that Florida State was applying to Notre Dame at the Tucker Civic Center in Tallahassee in mid-January.
The mere threat of Florida State’s athletic length was enough to force the Irish into five turnovers less than six minutes into a game, a game in which the Irish would convert 15-of-21 three-point attempts, yet still lose, 83-80, due largely to a season-high 18 turnovers.
Notre Dame point guard Matt Farrell, the maestro of most things good offensively for the efficient Irish, got off to a rough start. Only Notre Dame’s hot shooting allowed the Irish to be within six points at halftime.
Farrell had five of Notre Dame’s 13 first-half turnovers against the Seminoles.
“We turned the ball over way too much in the first half,” Farrell recalled. “They sped us up a little bit. The first half we were just kind of running around because they were pushing us out of our sets.”
Farrell heeded his own advice. He turned it over just once in the second half against the Seminoles and the Irish coughed it up a mere five times while continuing their torrid three-point shooting pace.
“It’s important to be able to stay poised and stick to what we do,” said Farrell, looking ahead to Saturday’s 6:00 ET rematch with No. 14 Florida State at Purcell Pavilion. “We’ve got to screen better, get people open, and run our stuff better. We can’t have that happen again. We’ve got to dictate the tempo on offense.”
Florida State forces turnovers against everyone. The Seminoles lead the league in ACC play with 14.9 turnovers forced per game.
For Farrell, it’s a fine line between attacking Florida State as the engine of the Irish offense and knowing when to throttle back.
“You don’t want to take away his go-for-it mentality,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “He’s been better about calling off transition stuff and not forcing stuff in transition. Since the Georgia Tech game – that game he was trying to take everybody on – that’s helped him.
“He’s also been better on that initial drive in the lane where sometimes he just goes all the way through instead of trying to make a play over all that length. But you don’t want to take any of that (aggressiveness) away.”
In Notre Dame’s seven ACC victories, Farrell’s assist-to-turnover ratio is 41-to-21 – nearly 2-to-1. In Notre Dame’s five ACC losses, his assist-to-turnover ratio is 20-to-16 – nearly 1-to-1.
His seven-assist, six-turnover game against Florida State threw Farrell’s numbers out of whack. He also makes passes that lead to scores that don’t always show up on his assist ledger.
It’s a fine line that Brey – a former point guard and Notre Dame’s personal point-guard instructor – must learn to straddle with each player that rotates through the position.
From his first Notre Dame point guard, Martin Ingelsby, through Chris Thomas, Chris Quinn, Tory Jackson, Ben Hansbrough, Eric Atkins, Jerian Grant, Demetrius Jackson and now Farrell, Brey has found a happy medium.
“Ben was a high-wire act on a lot of fronts,” laughed Brey, who unleashed Hansbrough in 2010-11, which led to his selection as Big East player of the year while averaging 18.4 points and 4.3 assists per game.
“Chris Thomas, Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney were daring; Chris Quinn and Martin Ingelsby were safe.
“Matt is (daring), so you don’t want to throttle what he does. When T.J. (Gibbs) plays with him, it takes some things off him because you’ve got another driving, playmaking guard out there.”
Striking a positive balance against Florida State Saturday night likely will determine the winner of the game.
“They’re disappointed in how they played there,” said Brey of his team’s reaction to the Florida State loss. “Eighteen turnovers is something that we hardly ever see. Our guys are embarrassed about that and know that we have to be better with it.”
Farrell knows it begins with him, and for him, it starts with the fundamentals of point-guard play.
“Sometimes it’s hard (striking a balance), especially against a team like this,” Farrell said. “When you get in there, you want to play off two feet and try to make good decisions while also trying to stay aggressive.
“Since they contest (jump shots) so much, that gives us the ability to get in the lane. We’ve just got to be better with the ball.”
It’s not all about Farrell. Steve Vasturia turned it over four times against the Seminoles and V.J. Beachem committed three miscues.
“That game was a tail of two halves,” Vasturia said. “We didn’t take care of the ball in the first half. In the second half, we were a lot better, and therefore a lot better offensively.
“We got better shots and got open looks. That starts with taking care of the ball. They get a lot of their points off steals and blocks. A bad shot leads to a run-out for them.”
“The turnovers and offensive rebounding early really hurt us,” Beachem said. “Those are two things we definitely can clean up, especially the turnovers, which is very uncharacteristic of us.”
Brey will help the cause by finding a better match-up for his team. The Irish play their best basketball with four shooters around Bonzie Colson, who added a pair of three-pointers against Wake Forest.
Ultimately, that broke the Demon Deacons’ spirit in the second half while continuing a recent trend. In the last three games against Duke, North Carolina and Wake Forest, the Irish have turned it over 24 times. Since the first Florida State game, Notre Dame has 55 turnovers in six games.
“The one thing that helps is playing smaller,” said Brey, acknowledging the dangers against Florida State’s length. “You have more ball handlers on the floor and more guards on the floor.
“Playing with our spread motion and with the smaller lineup, it gives you more decision makers with the ball against their pressure. T.J. Gibbs gave us great stuff (at Florida State) and took some pressure off. This could be a game where he plays more than he usually plays.”
If the Irish follow their recent trend of protecting the basketball – and shooting it well from three-point range – they just might grab their first victory over a ranked team since No. 9 Louisville on Jan. 4.
“(Florida State) is a really good team, but we let that one slip away from us ” Farrell said. “(Brey) is a guy who thinks the ball is gold. I like to think the same way, and if we don’t turn the ball over, we’ll be in good shape.
“That was a game we could have won if we didn’t turn the ball over as much, but that’s in the past. We know this is a game we can get.”