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Men’s Basketball: Defense leads in Irish win

Matthew DeFranks | Monday, December 3, 2012

When then-No. 8 Kentucky came into Purcell Pavilion last Thursday night, the Wildcats came in averaging more than 85 points per game. They left with just 50 in a 14-point loss to Notre Dame.

Kentucky is not alone though, as the No. 22 Irish have held six of their eight opponents under their season scoring average. The stellar defense has helped Notre Dame (7-1) get off to a fast start.

“Our starting guys have played together so much,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “We talk about how much chemistry they have on the offensive end and they take care of the ball, but they really know how to play together on the defensive end, how to cover for each other.”

Notre Dame has held opponents to 58.5 points per game, 37.6 percent shooting from the field and 31.0 percent from behind the arc. The Irish have held two opponents to less than 50 points and four to 23 or less first-half points.

“I think a term that’s underused in college basketball is unselfish defense,” Brey said. “You always think of that as sharing the ball but I think we’re very unselfish defensively because we give up ourselves to help our teammate.”

While the Irish return all five starters from last season, fresh faces in the rotation like senior center Garrick Sherman and freshman forward Cameron Biedscheid have fit well into Notre Dame’s defense.

“Garrick Sherman has become a sixth guy to do that because he’s so old and such a veteran, he – like [graduate student guard Scott Martin] – knows how to rotate over and guard other people,” Brey said. “Cam is still a work in progress but I’ve very impressed with where he’s at. He’s further ahead than I thought he’d be.”

Notre Dame relies mostly on its stingy and rotating team defense, but Brey said the Irish have a lockdown defender waiting in the wings for Big East season.

“Now, we’ve kind of groomed [sophomore guard Pat Connaughton] as our defensive stopper on perimeter guys, especially wing guys,” Brey said. “He’s really embraced that. We’re going to have to come back to that a lot in league play.”

The Irish have successfully mixed their different defenses: a basic 2-3 zone called “23,” a 2-3 zone with half-court pressure Brey coined “23 Hot” and their simple man-to-man. Notre Dame has rotated through the three defenses and used them when needed, Brey said.

“Part of our team defense is the ability to change,” Brey said. “Our solid man-to-man, our 23 and our 23 Hot are our staples and we need to be able to rotate through them.

“You never know going into a game what you’re going to be in more. You may think ‘Probably not a night we’re going to play zone’ and then you play zone for 30 minutes. You just never know.”

The zone defense, when mixed with Notre Dame’s slow-it-down-and-grind-it-out offensive philosophy, can cause problems for opposing teams, Brey said.

“When we’re playing zone and being patient on offense, so you have to guard us for a long possession and then you have to come and be patient against our zone, I think that takes its toll on you psychologically,” he said. “You never can really do anything fast.”

Over the last few seasons, Brey’s teams have evolved and learned to control the tempo, slow the ball down and shorten the games.

“We’re really good at controlling tempo in the offensive end, it’s something we’ve evolved into the last three years,” Brey said. “This group, especially these guards are so good at dictating tempo.”

Notre Dame will look to continue its strong defense when they host Brown on Saturday at 7 p.m. in Purcell Pavilion.

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu