NEW ORLEANS — Notre Dame’s slow-burn offense burned just a touch too slow.
The strategy works, especially with the personnel Notre Dame has: good ball-handlers who can all pass and three legitimate 3-point threats. It spreads out opposing defenses, opens drive lanes and with the ball in the hands of Notre Dame’s guards, who can find the open shooter, it creates good shots.
The strategy works — but when it doesn’t, it can’t be the only option.
No. 6 seed Notre Dame struggled through scoring droughts of 6:07 and 7:03 in its 51-50 loss to No. 11 seed Old Dominion Thursday. Notre Dame led at the half but shot 31 percent from the field in the second half and made only two 3-pointers.
The strategy worked in the first half, when Notre Dame cut and moved the ball rapidly. In the second half, the ball stayed on the perimeter of the zone and finding a good shot became harder. When Notre Dame had a good look, it didn’t fall.
Part of the problem stemmed from the Monarchs’ stifling of senior forward Luke Harangody, who scored four points, all in the final 13 seconds of the game. He finished 2-of-9, as the Monarchs used a zone that kept the Irish big man from getting going.
Notre Dame has the shooters to shoot over the zone on a good day. Senior guard Ben Hansbrough hit three 3-pointers and junior forward Carleton Scott made two. But junior forward Tim Abromaitis, who shot 44 percent from 3-point range but had struggled in the Big East tournament, was 0-for-5 from 3-point range.
“Tonight wasn’t our shooting night,” Hansbrough said. “And they made a couple of really nice plays. Hit a couple of outside shots and we couldn’t hold on to the lead for long enough.”
It can’t be that the team doesn’t know how to play against an effective 2-3 zone, because it plays Syracuse every year. Single-elimination games, however, can take a sound blueprint and turn it on itself. Notre Dame’s slow offense, played out over a long period of time, will net the Irish more wins than losses. But in a single-iteration setting, it can subject the Irish to dangerous scoring gaps and runs by the opponent.
The 2006-07 Irish went 24-8 and finished fourth in the Big East, no small feat in such a tough conference. That was not a bad team. It had a 3-point shooter in Colin Falls, post players in Harangody and Rob Kurz and an athletic guard in Russell Carter. It just happened to lose a crucial game, in the first round to No. 11 seed Winthrop, not a tragedy in college basketball —unless you’re in the Tournament. Single elimination — even good teams fall victim to it. Ask the four No. 2 seeds who lost to No. 15 seeds in the Tournament history, or No. 4 seed Wake Forest last year.
Irish coach Mike Brey has built the Irish into a team with a shot at the Tournament every year, and he’s taken them there six times in his 10 years as head coach. He reached the Sweet 16 with Chris Thomas in 2003 before falling to No. 1 seed Arizona, so he has the acumen to lead the team deeper into the field. Slowing the offense down, which began in February against Louisville, no doubt created the opportunity for the Irish, who were 6-8 in conference play at one point, to reach the Tournament in the first place.
It doesn’t need to go, it just needs an addition. In a one-and-done setting, the slow, burn-the-shot-clock offense needs a second gear. Another dimension would also allow the Irish to draw more fouls by penetrating and forcing contact — they shot three free throws against Old Dominion.
Notre Dame showed it was comfortable taking its time and winning games close — the 50-45 win over Pittsburgh in the Big East tournament quarterfinal is a perfect example. It also showed it can score, when it dropped 78 on Georgetown on the road. The second dimension to the offense lay dormant Thursday.
“We turned it over and a couple of easy transition opportunities,” Brey said. “When we take those, I was hoping we could be better.”
Brey said that next season, he might balance the offensive style more to allow for quicker possessions.
“That’s probably because we have slowed down,” he said. “We haven’t done them as much. We’re not as good at them. I thought about this a lot thinking about next season, I think there is a balance point there with tempo.”
Whether it comes in the form of quick cuts to the basket, more penetration or shooting on the first look, another dimension to the burn offense that Notre Dame could execute well would benefit the team, especially in Big East dogfights — or elimination games. But game planning will only get the team so far. The shots, whether with 28 seconds on the shot clock or four, need to fall.
“You can talk about getting into the gap. You can talk about hitting the short corner. You can talk about hitting the foul line,” Brey said. “Eventually, to beat a team that’s going to sit in that [zone], you’ve got to make some shots, two or three in a row, to kind of change the climate. We could never do that.”