Offense First, Irish Fourth

The most common barometer for success in the Big East through the years has been solid team defense. Notre Dame down the stretch has chosen to try and outscore teams, and it's been costly. The Irish are mathematically eliminated from the West Division race and a high seeding in the NCAA Tournament is in jeopardy. IrishEyes Managing Editor Alan Tieuli reports on why Mike Brey focuses on offense first, and the ramifications.

Copyright by Global Electronics Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes™

March 2, 2003

Putting Offense First
Places ND Fourth in BE

By Alan Tieuli
 IrishEyes Magazine

NOTRE DAME, IN (IE) – Following the disheartening 95-82 defeat to Rutgers Saturday, Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey noted his team needed to "Reel its focus back in" and not worry about seedings in the NCAA Tournament.   

"A lot of people have talked to them about the tournaments," Brey said. 

Brey doesn't need to be reminded that it was his voice that was the most prominent when it came to promoting the Irish for a high seed.  Brey, live in the ESPN studio on Feb. 13, proclaimed his team was deserving of a two seed. 

The Irish were 19-4 on that day and, at that point, the head coach was absolutely right.  But nothing has turned out positive since.  Two weeks and three days later, Notre Dame is 21-7 and no better than fourth in its own division, never mind an NCAA region. 

Did early success and an emphasis on offense over defense set the Irish up for this fall?   

After losing a fabulous game at Syracuse on Feb. 15, 82-80, Brey was asked to comment on the Orangemen only turning the ball over four times, a statistic determined to be "unbelievable" by Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. 

Brey literally shrugged it off, explaining "We're not a team that really turns you over anyway. "We're more like a defensive field goal percentage team." 

Two games later, Connecticut shot holes in that statement, sinking 54-percent of its shots from the three-point line in building a 15-point halftime lead.  The Huskies were never seriously threatened and won, 87-79, Notre Dame's first home loss of the season.    The loss dropped the Irish to 1-4 against ranked teams in calendar year 2003, with an average 82 points allowed in the contests. 

So it was natural this past week to ask Brey if he was concerned about his team's sluggish defense. 

"I'm always concerned," he said. "But  I do believe you look at college basketball, and teams that can put some numbers up, and are efficient offensively, those teams can hang in there long enough and are tough to catch.  I do concentrate a lot on that because we are very talented offensively and that's a strength." 

Notre Dame took that philosophy into Rutgers and was burned.  While no-one will argue that the Irish can be gifted offensively, defense always has been the most accurate barometer of success in the Big East. 

"When Connecticut got to 80 points, you just knew they would win this game," one long-time Big East observer told IrishEyes Monday night. "You just can't recall them ever losing when they score 80.  They lock you down when they have to." 

Why is Notre Dame fourth in the West Division today?  Simple math will explain.  The Irish are 11th in scoring defense in the Big East (75.1).  The top three teams, Pittsburgh, Seton Hall and Syracuse, are all ahead of ND in the standings. 

The Irish are eighth in field goal percentage defense.  Syracuse, Seton Hall and Pittsburgh are 2-3-4.  The Irish are dead last in defensive three-point shooting, with the Orangemen, Pirates and Panthers 1-2-3.   

With Pittsburgh leading the conference in team scoring defense this year, it will mark the 22nd time in 24 years that the best defensive team in the Big East will make the NCAA Tournament.  Nine of the last 10 teams to lead the conference in defensive field goal percentage also qualified. 

None of this is a surprise to Brey.   His team led the Big East in defensive FG percentage in 2000-01 – the year it won the Big East West Division. 

Brey admitted this week that it's difficult to focus on aggressive defense when he has to give long minutes to Chris Thomas and Matt Carroll.   The Irish leaders have been outplayed in recent efforts against the quick, athletic Connecticut and Rutgers backcourts. 

"I'm not going to waste times with defensive drills," said Brey. "But we got to get our guys in the right position and change defenses at the right time." 

Certainly for the Big East it's too late.  Shoddy defense has derailed what was shaping up to be a championship season.  But results in March are what matter most and will be fascinating to see if Brey's offense over defense philosophy wins out or is altered in the next two weeks.

(Alan Tieuli is the Managing Editor of IrishEyes Magazine and can be reached at  For subscription information Top Stories