The Old Fashioned Way

Notre Dame's only chance at the NCAA Tournament is to earn a second (and dare-to-dream, third?) Big East road win this season. The secret to road success for the Irish? Rebounds...

Statistics don't always provide an accurate measure of a basketball team's success.

Bench scoring (referred to Irish head coach Mike Brey as the "most overrated statistic in the history of basketball") can be offset with contributions from low-scoring subs that otherwise provide tenacious defense and facilitate the offense, continually finding an open shooter.

Assist-to-turnover ratio (a category in which the Irish rank first nationally) is an indicator of an unselfish offensive team that understands the game…but it also often illustrates the lack of a consistent scorer off the dribble.

The now popular "free throw percentage in the game's final five minutes" is an interesting stat; one used to measure a player's ability to knock down pressure free throws. But did the two makes or misses at the 5:30 mark of a close game for some reason matter less?

Statistics have their place, and they often provide a baseline overview of a given team's performance over the course of a season. But any singular stat can be overcome through myriad factors that occur each night in a basketball game.

Yes, stats can lie, but one glaring statistic tells a tall tale for the Notre Dame basketball team:

During the current 14-game – 3-win/11-loss – span of road games dating back to the beginning of last year's Big East conference season, Notre Dame has out-rebounded its opponents on three occasions – and emerged victorious in each of those three contests.

They lost the other *11.

  • December 2008 Notre Dame 92 DePaul 82: 40-31 advantage for the Irish.
  • February 2009 Notre Dame 103 Providence 84: 45-32 advantage for the Irish
  • January 2010 Notre Dame 74 South Florida 73: 34-30 advantage for the Irish

    *(Notre Dame and Cincinnati tied at 37 boards apiece in a February 2009, 93-83 loss by the Irish to the Bearcats.)

    The Irish have won the battle of the boards in four of six conference home games this season (they're 4-0 in those contests) while splitting the pair in which they were outrebounded by the opponent (defeating West Virginia and losing to Syracuse).

    "We've probably been outrebounded here (in wins over the last two seasons)," offered head coach Mike Brey "but we've just outshot people to dodge those bullets.

    Those bullets have laid waste to Irish hopes on the road, where a visiting team's poise, patience, and confidence are often in short supply in front of frenzied crowds that buoy the home team to perform above their normal level of play.

    Subjectively, Notre Dame has not "shot its way" to a road win since their last visit to Seton Hall, a 95-69 shellacking in which the Irish also out-rebounded their disinterested hosts, 44-29.

    "No Rebounds, No Rings"

    Ex-Lakers head coach Pat Riley adopted that mantra prior to the 1987 NBA season and the motivational reminder resulted in back-to-back NBA Championships for his Lakers over the Celtics and Pistons.

    The 2010 Irish aren't winning any rings, but a NCAA Tournament appearance is well within their grasp. With that comes the opportunity to make a little first weekend NCAA noise and join the fortunate group of 16 teams highlighted in the tourney's magical second week – a hugely successful season and accomplishment for nearly every college basketball program.

    Glass prowess is admittedly not the only missing ingredient, but a renewed commitment to rebounding on the road is one element of the game that can be controlled by the Irish.

    Why should a team that rebounds well in its own building regress to such a degree on the road? How can the same collection of players lose the battle on the boards by a 50-31 margin in Cincinnati in mid-January (a two-point loss), come back and own the glass with a 41-32 edge (an 18-point win) exactly 19 days later vs. the same team and collection of players?

    Nearly to a man, the Irish hit the glass harder at home. A maddening occurrence considering the Irish can afford to occasionally lose the battle of the boards in South Bend given their ability to score inside the Purcell Pavilion.

    Senior All American Luke Harangody has averaged 12 rebounds per game this season in six Big East home games but just 8.4 in five conference road contests.

    Fellow big man Tyrone Nash has likewise fared better at home with a 6.6 per game average vs. a 4.2 effort away from home in conference play, bottoming out with a glaring bagel on the boards in the 60-58 loss at Cincinnati.

    Senior guard Ben Hansbrough has scrapped and hustled for exactly 7 rebounds per game in home Big East contests…he's averaged just 2.2 on the road in conference play.

    Of Notre Dame's top five board men (including backup forward Carleton Scott), only junior forward Tim Abromaitis has upped his game off the glass outside of South Bend, collecting 31 road caroms (6 per game) vs. 30 on his home floor (5 per contest).

    Follow your Leader

    Though his rebounds per game are down from season's past, point guard Tory Jackson has also found a way to battle for rebounds in hostile territory, grabbing 15 in five road games (vs. 11 in six home tilts). Jackson's road numbers rank as perhaps the least surprising team statistic, as his overall approach and focus seems greater in hostile environs.

    "The same mentality we have here (South Bend) – the way we practice here – we have to take that on the road and practice the same way," Jackson explained of his team's road woes. "This is a great opportunity for us (the Irish traveling squad left for Thursday's game at Seton Hall 30 hours earlier than expected due to inclement weather conditions in both cities). It gets us there to develop that (home) mentality, to have a chance to practice there the way we do here."

    Jackson's one Irish player that will likely put those words and practice preparation into action when the lights go on Thursday night, as the senior captain has knocked down 13 of his last 22 shots on the road (despite struggling mightily from the field at home over that same span). Of course, Notre Dame has lost its three road games played in that stretch, and the Irish will need more than a determined, undersized point guard to earn their second conference road win of the 2010 season.

    "At home the crowd gets into it and you get on the backboard a little bit (more)," explained Hansbrough when asked about the team's road rebounding woes. "On the road, that's one thing I have to get better at: going in there, finding loose balls, scrapping a little bit and making ‘toughness plays.' I have to get better with that, the whole team does."

    Even one of the conference's all-time best rebounders has (recently) struggled away from home on the glass. Due partly to an increased number of shot attempts from outside the paint, Luke Harangody has failed to notch double-digit rebounds in 10 of Notre Dame's last 12 games played outside of South Bend (this on the heels of a six-game stretch in which he averaged an incredible 14 boards per game on the road).

    Thursday's Challenge

    The Irish will take on the league's top rebounder Thursday night in Pirates transfer forward Herb Pope (Harangody ranks second to Pope's 10.9 boards with 10.1 rebounds per contest). Pope ranks second among the conference's offensive glass cleaners (4.1 per contest) and the Pirates rank fourth in the category as a team.

    "I think rebounding is always the key for us," Brey reiterated Tuesday as the team boarded the bus for a trip to Michiana Regional Airport. "Can we rebound the ball and keep athletes off the backboard in this league? Seton Hall has a number of them."

    "If we can keep the (opponents') athletic ability out of our lane and off the backboard enough, we can beat anybody in the league," Brey continued. "When we don't anybody can beat us. It really comes down to that a lot. We have to continue to change defenses, and no matter what defense you're in, can you get the ball off the backboard?"


    Following Notre Dame's 84-71 home loss to Syracuse in early January – a game that ultimately turned when a four-point deficit was stretched to 10 late as the Orange squeezed six points out of one possession due to offensive rebounds following missed free throws – Brey was asked if the game has changed to the point where standard "box-out" principles might not be enough vs. today's athlete.

    "Sometimes Tim Abromaitis (as an example) can put a body on an (NBA athlete) and sometimes it just doesn't matter."

    I agree with the particular example (though in both cases, Notre Dame's rebounders weren't merely out-jumped, but also outmuscled, which is inexcusable on the foul line). It's true that the Big East boasts rare athletes that can turn the fundamentally sound player into an innocent bystander on plays above the rim.

    But these instances are few and far between. A defender that properly boxes out his man will get his fingers on the prospective rebound on 8 of 10 occasions…and one of those two failures should draw an over-the-back foul call from an observant official.

    Despite the celebrated 3-11 two-season skid, coach Brey has a recipe for road success (30-33 in eight prior seasons including a solid 8-9 mark in Harangody's freshman and sophomore seasons). And if I may borrow once again from Pat Riley, I have a recipe of my own:

    No rebound; no reward.

    Notre Dame isn't good enough to allow any soft play in the lane from its seven contributors. Either commit to the toughness needed to secure the up-for-grabs rebound or have a seat…both on the Notre Dame bench and in front of the TV, watching the nation's 64 best go at it when it matters most. Top Stories