Opportunity Lost

IrishEyes reviews last night's loss to St. John's with its player-by-player, crowd, and coaching staff observations, including a look at late-game strategy, execution, and the benefit of hindsight.

A few notes on what was apparently "Friends and Family Night" at the Purcell Pavilion in Sunday's 69-68 loss to the visiting Red Storm:

Player of the Game – Tyrone Nash

It wouldn't have been close without him. (Imagine reading that observation at this time last season?) Nash, as noted by head coach Mike Brey, did a little bit of everything last night with All American Luke Harangody lost to a bone bruise:

  1. He defended talented but enigmatic Red Storm power forward Justin Burrell with a limited degree of success. Burrell's patience in the post and athleticism resulted in 12 points on seven field goal attempts and a 4-5 free throw effort (including a key bucket and three foul shots late).

    Burrell totaled 35 points and 14 boards in two matchups with the Irish last season and was a noted trouble spot entering the contest. Though Nash didn't stop him, he did mitigate the damage.

  2. In the process, the Irish junior scored 16 points (on 5-8 from the field and 6-9 from the line) and fouled out Burrell in 20 minutes of action while incurring three fouls on starting center Sean Evans as well (Evans, as a result, was limited to 7 minutes).

  3. Nash added four assists while aiding Irish guards as a third ball-handler vs. the Red Storm's constant defensive pressure. More important, he knocked down the game's two crucial free throws, giving the Irish their last lead at 68-67 with under 40 seconds remaining.

His paltry rebound total (three in 38 minutes?) can be overlooked a bit as the Irish kept pace with the bigger, more athletic Red Storm on the boards, winning the rebound battle 28-27 and collecting the same number on the offensive glass (6). It was Nash's first game in a featured role on the low block. He was patiently aggressive and showed good court awareness. If Nash can develop a consistent shot between five and 10 feet he'll be a consistent and reliable Big East power forward in 2010-11.

In a Nutshell – Tory Jackson

To be blunt, St. John's solidly built point guard Malik Boothe is a better defensive player than Jackson is an offensive weapon. The 5'9" Red Storm point guard was a rock, stymieing Jackson's penetration with a dedicated, low defensive base and making the Irish pay twice offensively, drilling a clock-beating jumper to end the half and give the visitors a three-point edge, and later knocking down a wide open three-pointer from the key (Boothe shoots under 20 percent from long-range) early in the second half.

Boothe's defensive effort ensured that neither of Notre Dame's experienced senior leaders could make a positive impact in last night's contest. Jackson, as expected, fought to the end, leading the Irish with three offensive rebounds and turning committing just one second-half turnover (four in the first 20 minutes). But the final two misses of his 1-10 shooting night cost the Irish dearly (detailed below). Notre Dame needed a better shot and a better decision from its senior point guard with 12.5 seconds remaining.

Jackson won a game for the Irish last Sunday (South Florida) and he almost turned the trick on the road in Thursday's three-point loss at Seton Hall, but the Irish needed him to knock down a few shots and make better decisions last night in the season's No. 1 must-win contest to date.

Coolly Efficient – Tim Abromaitis

The 6'8" 235-pounder led the Irish with 24 points, knocking down 7 of 11 shots from the floor (4-6 from beyond the arc) while grabbing six rebounds (two offensive) in 39 minutes.

His cold-blooded corner 3 gave the Irish a 66-64 lead late but Notre Dame's defense failed them and Abro's shooting heroics became a footnote in yet another close 2010 loss. Abromaitis stretched his streak of consecutive free throws to 30 before missing one short late in the first half.

His ability to squeeze off shots from beyond the arc coupled with aggressiveness on backdoor cuts and flashes across the lane make him a tough cover (Abro finished a backdoor cut with a dunk and foul shot to bring the Irish within one at the 2:09 mark). If he can add a pull-up jump shot to his game, the redshirt-junior will be a consistent 18-20 point scorer, even without Harangody, next season.

Let's Go Halfsies – Ben Hansbrough

10 points (4-6 and 2-2 from long range) and two rebounds in the first half…one three-point field goal and just two shot attempts in the second. Senior guard Ben Hansbrough has produced a troubling trend as of late: he's a much more aggressive player in the game's first 20 minutes.

Hansbrough squeezed off just three shots, hitting none in the second half of last Sunday's win over South Florida (13 points in the first half). He followed that with a scoreless (attempted just two shots) final 19 minutes in Thursday's loss at Seton Hall after an engaged, seven-point first half.

After watching Hansbrough for 25 games, most of them live, I can officially say he's anything but a wilting flower on the court. The senior is tough, aggressive, focused, and competitive. But he has to become a bit more selfish hunting his shot (at least via penetration) in the second half of the remaining six-plus games. Get to the free throw line and the rest will develop naturally.

Of Note: Hansbrough's drive from the right wing to the baseline and ensuing cross-court pass to Abromaitis for the go-ahead 3-point bucket with 1:29 remaining would have been the play of the day had the Irish prevailed.

20-minute minimum – Carleton Scott

The redshirt-junior is far from a finished product. In fact, he's likely a year behind where he should be after three seasons in the program. (The blame in this case rightly lies with both the player and the staff).

But he's a player the Irish need, and will need over the final five regular season, 1-3 (dare to dream) conference tournament games, and, um…post-season tournament matchups. He needs to play with Harangody…with Nash and Harangody. He needs minutes. Scott is simply a better basketball player in extended action. He doesn't provide instant offense or an incredible burst of energy in three-minute increments. Rather, he's a player that makes a positive contribution as a rebounder, help-side defender, and maybe some day, as a fifth scorer when given ample playing time.

Scott finished with six rebounds, three assists (robbed of a fourth), five points, and a key weak side blocked shot late in a career-high 27 minutes.

  • Scott's earned 19 or more minutes in seven games this season. He's hit 16 of 31 shots; connected on 5-6 free throws (he could be more aggressive offensively) en route to 40 points; collected 48 rebounds (21 offensive); and contributed 14 assists vs. 7 turnovers.
  • In all other games (19 total) he's averaged 1.4 points, 1.7 rebounds and produced and a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

I'm sure the staff argument to Scott's situation would be revealing and offer a decent explanation for the lack of consistent minutes. Of course, so is my rebuttal: NIT.

No-Show, No-Call, No Job – Jonathan Peoples

12 minutes, one rebound, one turnover, no points, no assists, no kidding…

Peoples was awarded the starting position in place of the injured Harangody last night. He should probably have to earn it for Wednesday's contest in Louisville.

The Irish senior tri-captain was a more focused, aggressive, not to mention efficient basketball player as a freshman and sophomore than as a junior and senior. Peoples has shown the ability to be a productive, helpful player off the bench at times for Brey and the Irish.

He's scored (23 vs. Providence this season); run the show (14 points and 9 assists at Providence last year); he's knocked down pressure free throws (vs. Pittsburgh as a sophomore); and competed athletically (the only two plays Notre Dame made above the rim vs. eventual champion North Carolina last season arrived courtesy of Peoples). He needs to find a way to bring something to the table again during this difficult stretch.

Long Overdue – Joey Brooks

In five minutes, Brooks earned a trip to the free throw line and stumbled on a full-speed fast break (it appeared he was going to attack the smaller Malik Boothe at the rim).

The problem with the sentence above…five minutes. I said it last year when Tyrone Nash rode the bench as ND's season eroded and I've said it a few too many times again this season (so why not one more?): It's not like Brooks is trying to unseat Julius Erving from the rotation…give the aggressive, sturdy freshman a legitimate chance.

Next Man Up – Jack Cooley

Earned a minute near the end of the first as the Irish needed a defensive stop (Boothe hit a 17-foot jump shot he couldn't replicate over 20-minute span in an empty gym). Coach Brey mentioned post-game that Cooley brings more to the table defensively at present and that the circumstances of the game didn't allow for extra minutes from the backup freshman center. I tend to agree in this case.

Close and Late – Mike Brey and Staff

Brey is now 30-35 as Irish head coach in games decided by three points or fewer. My guess is that's only slightly below average for a successful, major conference coach over a nine-year run. The Irish are 3-5 in such games this season with losses to Loyola Marymount, Cincinnati, Rutgers, Seton Hall, and St. John's (wins vs. South Florida twice and West Virginia).

As noted by Brey post-game, the usual suspect and key ingredient in those defeats was the lack of crucial defensive stop. That was the main culprit last night, though I can't shake the thought of a 1 for 10 shooter hoisting a 21-footer (it was a decent look) with seven seconds remaining.

Shot selection aside, Notre Dame's standard final play offense is predictable and defendable: give the ball to point guard (Chris Thomas, Chris Quinn, Tory Jackson) and ask him to create. Hey, it worked for Michael Jordan, right? (Oddly, Notre Dame has impressive in-game out-of-bounds and following timeout offensive players. Quick hitters, too...they just don't seem to materialize for the final possession.)

The Irish were out of timeouts. They were without their best player. They were facing a collection of solid perimeter defenders in Boothe, D.J. Kennedy, and Paris Horne…but they could have, should have, but rarely do, found a way to take a better shot.

As for the in-game chess match, I thought Brey mixed and match defenders well, with Hansbrough checking Kennedy (4-12) for most of the contest and Jackson switching to the hot-shooting Dwight Hardy (16 points on 5-7 from beyond the arc) who nonetheless buried a key 3-pointer in his defender's grill late. Inside, the options were limited, and Nash held his own vs. four Red Storm big men.

The Irish were admittedly a viable defender short, though I don't think Abromaitis on Kennedy, the Red Storm's best player, was a strategical error on the final defensive series. (Kennedy blew by Abro, going the opposite way of a high screen, to draw the game-deciding foul at the rim.) Would Abro on the 6'3" Horne have made any sense? Probably not, though Horne is a poor shooter. And I doubt I'd have removed him for Brooks at that point, either.

The old adage: Make them beat us with a jump shot would have likely served the Irish well, but that's easy to say in hindsight. I'd have just left Hansbrough on Kennedy and taken my chances elsewhere.

Atmosphere – Listed Attendance: 8,547

That's probably accurate, assuming the number includes players, coaches, press, administrators, cheerleaders, the Pom Squad, security, concession workers, all affiliated administrative/game day personnel, and the students living in the South Quad.

Those that braved the cold were fully behind the short-handed home team, especially the students…all 42 of them. A Notre Dame writer (and fellow alum) much more experienced than I once told me that the one thing an Irish coach can't survive is the lack of support from the student body.

Of Note: Notre Dame's student body, the "Leprechaun Legion" has not been announced following the starting lineups of the last two contests. Rolling spotlights over empty seats provides a less-than-intimidating sixth man presence, I suppose.

And as has been customary for the better part of 22 years in matchups against average teams such as the Red Storm, pockets of empty seats were visible among the locals…St. John's cache wasn't enough to bring out South Bend's fickle season-ticket holders on a 12-degree night.

Brey re-built the home court atmosphere after interest and attendance bottomed-out in Chris Thomas' final season. That atmosphere and home-court advantage peaked in last January's ESPN GameDay visit and matchup vs. the Connecticut Huskies. It's been in slow decline since.

The Irish need to find a way to win in front of what should be a packed house next Wednesday vs. Pittsburgh and again in the home finale vs. UConn (both teams generally attract a turnout of locals and students alike). Stealing a road win and enjoying a little momentum entering the Big East Tourney is essential as well. (So is throwing out a broken record.)

Hot Seats and NIT berths can still be avoided.

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