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Men’s Baskeball: Irish fall flat in game they needed the most

Bobby Griffin | Monday, February 27, 2006

It’s time to stop making excuses and start examining what’s wrong with Notre Dame.

The Irish needed to beat Marquette, plain and simple. They needed to win their remaining three games to ensure a spot in the Big East tournament and they couldn’t do it. Notre Dame still has a chance, but it will have to win its last two games and deal with potential tiebreaker situations.

That’s not even the worst part. Given Marquette’s intensity and Notre Dame’s willingness to allow its opponent to control the tempo, a casual fan would not have known which team was playing for its postseason life.

The Irish should have taken charge of this game and played with the sense of urgency a team playing for its postseason life possesses. But instead, the Irish allowed Marquette to play its own style of basketball, and eliminate Notre Dame’s major weapon – its 3-point shooting.

And when the Irish did make a comeback in the second half, all Marquette needed to regain control was a quick 30-second timeout when down five points. From there, forward Steve Novak hit two 3-pointers and Marquette went on a 12-2 run the Irish could not recover from.

This leads to another issue. Where was Notre Dame’s defensive intensity in its biggest game of the season? Sure, the Irish neutralized their opponent’s best player for the most part (Steve Novak), but they also allowed career days from lesser-known freshmen and sophomores (Dan Fitzgerald and Joe Chapman).

It is no secret Notre Dame struggles on the defensive end. The Irish have the second-worst scoring defense in the Big East behind Providence, giving up 70.5 points per game. This is not going to change. But there are ways to work around specific team weaknesses.

While Notre Dame gives up a lot of points, the Irish score more than just about anyone. The Irish have the second-best scoring offense in the Big East behind Villanova and outscore their opponents by 6.2 points per game (seventh in the league).

But when Marquette shut down Irish guards Colin Falls and Chris Quinn (who shot a combined 3-of-12 from the field), Notre Dame failed to make the necessary offensive adjustments that could have neutralized its lack of defensive stops.

Well, almost. Notre Dame did begin feeding the ball inside to senior forward Torin Francis, who had his best game of the season, scoring 16 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. Francis was a force in the paint and continued to show improvement in his ability to create for himself and his teammates.

But once Marquette retook the lead in the second half, the Irish panicked on the offensive end. They went away from working through Francis (besides guard Kyle McAlarney, who looked inside all game) and settled on quick shots, even though Marquette was smothering Notre Dame’s perimeter shooters (the Golden Eagles had the 6-foot-10 Novak on the 6-foot-1 Quinn during spurts).

This begs a question, too. Why did Notre Dame get away from what was working (feeding the ball inside to Francis) when it was trying to save its season?

As difficult as it is to say given his high character and leadership, some of this blame has to rest on Quinn’s shoulders. When a team is winning, the best player gets much of the credit. Likewise, when a team is losing, the same player bears much of the responsibility.

Quinn was pressing against Marquette, desperate to get a necessary conference win and fight the demons that must be present in his mind. Quinn has missed the big shot on several occasions this season and it has to weigh on him mentally.

But this issue extends far past this season alone. If Quinn had been the starting point guard before his senior year, he would not be in the position of having to lead a team while trying to figure out how to handle the daily pressure of being the main guy on and off the court.

Is it head coach Mike Brey’s fault? Maybe a little, but it is way more complex than blaming a coach who after a Sweet 16 appearance in 2003 was one of the hottest names in the country. Maybe the Irish coach places too much faith in his players and takes a backseat once the game begins. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing either – he has confidence in his team and knows ultimately his team’s performance will come down to execution.

There’s also another way to look at it. Maybe this is not the right approach with this specific group. Maybe Brey needs to take charge and not defer to his captains in game situations.

Either way, it is too early to call for the coach’s head. Let this season play out and see how he develops a new crop of underclassmen that will not burdened by the lasting impact of an underachieving point guard who is now playing in Europe.

But time is running out, and Notre Dame’s season now comes down to two remaining games. It’s too late for the Irish to control their own destiny – they will need help from other teams at the bottom of the conference.

But at the end of the day, Notre Dame’s loss to Marquette was just another chapter in a season full of confusion and disappointment. A season that unless something changes in the next week, someone has to begin taking responsibility for.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Bobby Griffin at rgriffi3@nd.edu