The bucket gave Seton Hall a 15-8 lead and caused two curious looks – from me and a colleague from a different site – both wondering what happened to the now well-publicized weak side defense of the Irish.
Over the next 9:06 of the contest, Seton Hall managed one more field goal and two free throws. Notre Dame scored 16 of the game's next 20 points to turn a seven-point deficit into a seven-point advantage; held the Pirates to just one more field goal before the end of the half, and order was restored to the new Notre Dame nation.
The second-highest scoring team in the Big East conference – one that erupted for 109 points 24 hours previous, scored six points in the final 12:28 of the first half.
Mike Brey's Irish stop opponents from scoring. Consistently. For extended stretches. As foreign as that concept may seem to close followers (and detractors) of the program, it's a statistical truth of the last three weeks: the most important three weeks of the 2010 season.
Five-Game FocusThe Irish currently possess a Big East-best five game winning streak. In four of the five wins, the opponent scored 56 or fewer at the end of regulation. The highest point total an opponent achieved in that stretch was the 64 points Georgetown managed on its home floor in a 14-point loss to the Irish.
The highly regarded Hoyas currently boast an RPI of 14 (the RPI is a tool used by the NCAA Selection Committee to compare tournament-worthy teams), but were rendered ineffective for two key stretches vs. Notre Dame's concerted defensive effort:
- The Irish jumped ahead early, holding their hosts without a field goal for 4:26 in the first half to take a 13-7 lead.
- After a Georgetown run cut Notre Dame's 12-point lead to four, 50-46 at the 8:48 mark, Notre Dame limited the Hoyas to four points in the next 5:57, using a 15-4 run to take control of the contest with a 15-point lead and under three minutes remaining.
Three days prior, Notre Dame defeated then No. 12 Pittsburgh (the Panthers currently hold the No. 10 spot in the RPI) by 15, 68-53.
- The Irish held an 8-point edge at intermission, then limited the Panthers to two jump shots and one free throw in the first 7:30 of the second half, stretching their lead to 52-30.
- After a tip-in goal at the 12:30 mark that cut ND's lead to 20, Pittsburgh managed one free throw over the next 4:34 of the contest. The Irish outscored the Panthers 25-10 with the outcome relatively in doubt.
In Notre Dame's home finale, the Irish held a then NCAA-bound Connecticut squad to one field goal in the game's first 6:50 – and shockingly – to one field goal from the 9:01 mark of the first half, to the 17:40 point of the second
The Irish followed that with 6:35 of shut-out basketball (aside from a few free throws) to turn a 10-point first half deficit into an 8-point mid-second half advantage in the 58-50 win.
Each of the defensive efforts described above were the result of committed man-to-man and help-side defense by the focused Irish. But in the regular season finale at Marquette, it was Notre Dame's much-maligned 2-3 zone that first turned the tables on the Golden Eagles.
- Trailing 19-8 with 10:52 remaining in the first half, Notre Dame switched to its 2-3 zone to slow the hosts constant penetration. Marquette did not score for the next 7:07 of the contest, and were then held without a field goal for the final 3:03 of the half.
- The Irish again fell behind midway through the second stanza, trailing 42-33 with 12:40 remaining. Brey's troops again buckled down defensively, holding the nation's No. 4 three-point shooting team to one field goal and two free throws over the next 11:08 before eventually sending the contest into overtime tied at 50.
- The extra session was a tribute to Notre Dame's commitment to defense and rebounding as the visitors held the Golden Eagles without a point until the 0:54 mark en route to a three-point road victory and 10-8 conference finish.
The Irish showed flashes of their newfound defensive acumen in their most recent loss, a 91-89 double overtime defeat at Louisville on February 17 when they held the Cardinals without a field goal for the final 5:23 of regulation to help force the first overtime.
How, Why, and What in the World Happened?The addition of Carleton Scott to the starting lineup, and as a 30-plus minute player in the rotation, was not only a key personnel change, but a move that altered the philosophy and identity of the Irish attack.
His length, athleticism, and weak side presence has made the Irish less vulnerable in the paint; keeps fellow post defender Tyrone Nash out of persistent foul trouble, and contributes to the most underrated aspect of team defense: protecting the defensive glass.
Step No. 1 toward that end actually began prior to this current run of excellence: Including a 74-73 loss at lowly Rutgers, Notre Dame had been outrebounded in six of their first nine Big East contests (losing five). Since, the Irish have been outrebounded just once in a 10-game span (Connecticut grabbed one more board than did the Irish in Notre Dame's win on March 3).
Not only do the Irish limit opponent's possessions, they likewise limit the number of attempts per possession, surrendering just 39 offensive rebounds while collecting 47 of their own during the five-game streak.
The improved interior D has extended to the perimeter, where Notre Dame has forced 68 misses in their opponents last 89 collective three-point attempts. Notre Dame's last five opponents have shot an aggregate 40 percent overall from the field.
Still Improving?Off the top of your head, guess Notre Dame's team three-point shooting percentage during the last five games? The last three?
The Irish have hit an impossibly low 9 of 48 three-point attempts in wins over UConn, Marquette, and Seton Hall...a trio of games that includes a home, road, and neutral site victory.
They've hit just 27 of 89 shots from long range during the five-game run; this from what was once the nation's No. 4 three-point shooting team.
The law of shooting averages are heavily in Notre Dame's favor in the coming days and weeks. Imagine what could happen if the Irish continue to play championship-level defense...focusing on one stop at a time.