ND Seeks Rarified ACC Tournament Air

Unless your name is North Carolina or Duke, ACC teams generally don’t contend for conference titles in rapid succession. ND has added its name to that short list.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – This is territory reserved for the North Carolinas and Dukes of the college basketball/ACC world.

If Notre Dame (25-8) adds its name to a list of ACC Tournament bluebloods Saturday night with a conference championship victory over the Blue Devils, the Irish will be a true interloper in a world normally inhabited by Tobacco Road residents alone.

“We have a chance to hang a ’17 banner next to a ’15 banner in our arena?” said a somewhat incredulous Mike Brey following Notre Dame’s 77-73 victory over No. 2 seed Florida State Friday night.

“Are you kidding me? Four years into our league? There are original ACC members that haven’t done in 50 years what we’ve done.”

Even if the Irish were to fall to Duke (26-8) -- which punched its ticket to the championship game with a come-from-behind 93-83 victory over No. 1 seed North Carolina – Notre Dame is walking on sacred hoops ground.

Other than North Carolina and Duke, the pursuit of ACC Tournament championships has been a spinning dial among the likes of Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Virginia, Wake Forest and Maryland, back when it was still a member of the conference.

If the Irish were to actually defeat the Blue Devils -- which, incidentally, would be the sixth time in eight games since Notre Dame joined the ACC four years ago --  they would become the first team since Wake Forest to claim a pair of championships in a three-year span (1995-96), and Demon Deacons did it in consecutive years.

You’d have to go all the way back to 1973-74 with N.C. State to duplicate Wake Forest’s feat.

“We’re really fortunate,” Brey said. “We’ve earned it, but we’re really fortunate to accomplish what we have.

“I have a great group. They really believe in the Barclays Center and they really believe in March.”

NOTRE DAME’S 1-2-2 LOOK

Florida State (25-8) shot 60 percent (18-of-30) in the second half to erase what had grown to an 18-point Irish lead. The Seminoles pulled to within four points as the buzzer sounded, scoring 47 second-half points and holding a 12-point advantage over the Irish during the final 20 minutes.

But it was the Irish defense – just as it had been the night before against Virginia – that helped forge a 42-26 halftime lead, ultimately giving the Irish enough cushion to withstand Florida State’s high-scoring attack.

Whereas a man-to-man defense did the trick against the Cavaliers, this was a 1-2-2 zone, an alignment the Irish hadn’t used all year. The Seminoles converted just 40.7 percent of their field-goal attempts (11-of-27) in the first half, including misses on all seven of their three-point attempts.

“We played with (the 1-2-2) after the Louisville game,” Brey said. “We wanted a little different look where we could match on the wings a little more.

“I liked it better than our 2-3. We worked (the 1-2-2) for four days, thinking it would be something we’d want to use in post-season. Tonight, it really helped us.”

A 2-3 defense, by its very nature, helps defend against corner jumpers and offers a bit more coverage up top, but allows for some offensive maneuverability within the middle of the lane.

A 1-2-2 makes it more difficult to crease the middle while still offering defense in the corners and on the wings, and maintaining some rebounding accessibility underneath.

“It keeps everything tight, so it kept them from penetrating, and then you have two bigs around the rim and everybody else can get long rebounds,” V.J. Beachem explained. “It was huge for us as far as battling on the glass and then keeping them out of the lane.”

The Seminoles still finished with nine offensive rebounds, but that was a far cry from the 17 they grabbed at Duke in the regular-season finale, the 21 they snagged against N.C. State a couple games prior to that, and slightly less than the 11.3 they averaged on the year.

Most importantly, it kept 6-foot-10 Jonathan Isaac from roaming the middle of the lane and slicing through Notre Dame’s defensive belly.

Although Isaac grabbed 15 rebounds, he managed just five points on 2-of-7 shooting. The 1-2-2 also contributed greatly to Florida State’s 18 turnovers – a number the Seminoles reached just once in their first 32 games.

“It makes it more difficult for them to get the ball in the middle,” said Steve Vasturia of the 1-2-2. “When you’re in a 2-3, they have a pretty clear path to dump it in there.

“The way we play it, we’re active, we have a lot of hands in passing lanes, and they turned it over a lot. When teams are expecting man and you give them something else, it throws them out of their rhythm.”

Ultimately, the Irish had to abandon the 1-2-2 when lightly-used 6-foot-6 junior Braian Angola Rodas converted four second-half three-pointers and scored 16 of his 17 points after the intermission.

But Notre Dame’s damage had been done and enough cushion had been established to withstand the rally.

“We’ve got some fatigue, too,” Brey said. “When you’re playing man-to-man against Virginia for 40 minutes, we couldn’t chase (Florida State) all night. It bought us some time. You’re able to get your legs under you.

“We had great instincts, we had a bunch of steals and we had a bunch of deflections. We’ll use it (against Duke). It was the zone that (Florida State) turned it over against.”

BOMBS AWAY

The three-point shot has been a trademark weapon of the Mike Brey era at Notre Dame. Naturally, there are nights when a cold-shooting performance from beyond the arc is lethal and the Irish pay the price.

But the 2016-17 team has been good-to-prolific from beyond the arc. They came into the Florida State game converting a rock-solid-and-beyond 38 percent from three-point range and upped that again versus the Seminoles with a sizzling 13-of-27 effort (48.1 percent), including 8-of-15 (53.3 percent) in the first half.

Using a one-third conversion rate as the floor, Notre Dame has achieve at least a 33.3 percent three-point shooting mark in 24 of 33 games. The Irish are 19-4 when converting at least one-third of their three-point attempts and 6-3 when they don’t. Notre Dame has made at least 40 percent of their three-point attempts in 16 out of 33 games.

“We’ve been getting off to good starts and feeling good about ourselves,” said Brey, “and we’ve been shooting the ball well.”

Breaking out of a 12-game shooting slump was Irish senior Steve Vasturia, who had converted just 12-of-58 three-pointers (20.6 percent) coming into the Florida State game. Vasturia hit his first three from beyond the arc against the Seminoles and finished 4-of-5.

“I never lost confidence in my shot,” said Vasturia, who finished with 18 points, tying Bonzie Colson for the team lead. “I have confidence in my offensive ability. I got some open looks and knocked them down.

“It feels good to see a couple go down. I just wanted to stay aggressive. The way Florida State plays, our guards were able to get into the lane and make plays. I tried to get other people shots as well.”

Doing most of the distributing was Matt Farrell, who scored 15 points on 3-of-8 three-point shooting while handing out six of Notre Dame’s 17 assists.

Since ACC play began – a total of 20 games – Farrell has converted 52-of-117 three-pointers for an outstanding 44.4 percent. He’s converted at least 40 percent of his attempts from behind the arc in 13 of those 20 games with at least two conversions in 17 of 20 games.

The ability to hit big-time shots and stay collected, particularly for a run like the one Florida State made Friday night, has put the Irish in championship mode once again.

“We’ve got guys that are poised and confident,” Farrell said. “We’ve got guys who play with an edge.

“When teams go on runs and we get in those timeouts, we trust in each other, we trust the system and then we go out there and do what we do.”

RELYING ON RYAN

Make no mistake, Matt Ryan’s attitude toward playing limited minutes in this, his sophomore season, is downright surly.

He doesn’t want to talk about not playing when he’s not playing; he doesn’t want to talk about not playing when he is playing.

Friday night, he was playing – 13 minutes in fact, which is the most since a Dec. 4 game against North Carolina A&T. His 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting from the field and 3-of-4 from three-point range were huge for the Irish, particularly the eight that he scored in the first half when the Irish were mounting an 18-point lead.

“I think I sparked us in the first half and got everybody’s energy going,” Ryan said. “We opened a 15-point or so lead and I think I contributed to that.”

Ryan, similar to Matt Farrell during his sophomore season in 2015-16, is frustrated by his lack of playing time. The difference is that Farrell concealed his anger toward the situation to the media and the public.

Ryan can’t do that, and when his frustration showed itself to Brey this week, it prompted the Irish head coach to take action.

“I actually got on him a little bit because I thought his body language was bad,” Brey said. “I understand that because not playing is hard. He’s not had the year he’s wanted to have.

“But I said, ‘You know, Matt, we really need you, and you owe it to your teammates to be engaged.’ I said, ‘You’re going in early tonight because I think you’ve got something that can help us in the post-season.’”

Ryan scored all eight of his first-half points in the final five minutes of the first half. His baseline drive and finish gave the Irish a 28-20 lead. A three-pointer 1:20 later made it a 31-22 lead.

Ryan then capped a 14-2 Irish run with a three-pointer with 27 seconds left for an 18-point lead.

“I played more. I haven’t changed; I just haven’t played,” Ryan said.

“When I’m moving offensively and I hit a couple shots, coach thinks I’m more locked in and then I’m talking defensively and I’m playing smart defensively and I’m helping rebound. That’s what helps keep me in the game.”

Ryan will be needed again tonight versus Duke. The Irish were working on fumes Friday night, and that was just their second game in as many nights. Duke will be playing its fourth straight day.

“I give him a lot of credit,” said Brey of Ryan. “I’m very proud of him. He has stayed tough even though his minutes haven’t been very consistent, and to do that tonight on this stage…fearless.”


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