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Men’s Basketball: Team must greatly improve on defense

Fran Tolan | Tuesday, January 20, 2009

In the early part of this decade, the Dallas Mavericks were sometimes derisively referred to as the “Allas Mavericks.” The nickname poked fun at the fact that the offensively-charged Mavs had no D.

Well, if Notre Dame doesn’t step it up on the defensive end, Big East opponents might justifiably start calling the Irish “Notre Ame.”

The team has repeatedly struggled to get stops, especially during crucial situations. The problem has never been more evident than during Saturday’s 93-74 setback at Syracuse. The Orange owned the Irish inside on the way to a 54-24 edge in points in the paint.

Notre Dame fought back several times during the second half, cutting its deficit to five or six points. But the Irish also repeatedly lacked the toughness to get a key stop.

For a team with a typical rotation of four seniors and three juniors, Notre Dame looked surprisingly rattled on the defensive end during key moments against Syracuse and last Monday against Louisville.

The Irish are supposed to be a team full of leaders but they have shown little poise, most notably on the road.

And if Notre Dame doesn’t toughen up, things will only go downhill from here. A big, physical Connecticut squad comes to town Saturday before high-powered Marquette and its legion of talented guards invades the Joyce Center.

If the Irish surrendered 82 points to a team like Seton Hall and 93 to Syracuse – which is more renowned for its physicality than its scoring – how many points can Marquette put up? 100? 110?

Hopefully for the Irish, a return home and the desire to prolong their 45-game win streak will motivate them to flex whatever muscles they have.

Notre Dame’s greatest strength clearly lies on the offensive end. At certain times, it seems like the Irish can put up points with anyone, but they can’t rely on scoring bursts to carry them through the brutal Big East season. They need to clamp down on defense to have any chance of competing with the league’s elite teams, especially on the road. Offensive runs might allow them to take down good teams at home, when the crowd helps turn those runs into game-changing momentum.

But none of the postseason will be played at the Joyce Center. If the Irish hope to reach what most thought their potential to be, they will have to win on the road. Only with better defense will they have a chance to do that.

So beginning this weekend, Notre Dame must play shutdown defense at critical moments.

Otherwise, the Irish will have something else in common with the Mavericks of recent years – they won’t get very far in the postseason.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Fran Tolan at ftolan@nd.edu