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Men’s Basketball: Burn baby burn

Douglas Farmer | Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nearly half of Notre Dame’s field goals came from behind the 3-point arc Monday night. Nonetheless, the No. 14 Irish toppled second-ranked Pittsburgh 56-51. Why the low scores despite the hot shooting? One word: Burn.

Irish coach Mike Brey first instituted the burn offense late last season. Since then, whenever Notre Dame (17-4, 6-3 Big East) breaks out the burn, it tests the patience of the players, its opponent and its fans.

“It is a drastic style of play,” Brey said Tuesday afternoon. “Everybody gets less shots, everybody touches the ball less. The mental concentration and sacrifice of reps on the offensive end I think is underrated and it tells you how this group really believes.”

Prior to the road upset, every time Notre Dame scored less than 60 points in a game, it stumbled to that low total thanks to abysmal shooting.

The Irish shot a disappointing 18.8 percent from 3-point range in a 22-point trouncing to Marquette, 20 percent from deep in a loss to St. John’s, and a 7.7 percent performance from deep in the second half against Kentucky.

At Pittsburgh, the Irish shot 9-of-18 from behind the arc and took just 39 total shots. The vast majority of those shots came with only seconds left on the shot clock — neither team scored a single fast-break point.

“We knew going in that we wanted to work [the shot clock] down,” senior guard Scott Martin said. “We were just happy to be hitting those shots when we had those opportunities.”

Martin opened Notre Dame’s scoring with two 3-pointers in the opening minutes. In the second half, senior forward Carleton Scott hit multiple 3s, ending the night five-of-six from deep. Even when the Irish took their first lead since leading 8-5, it was on a 3-pointer courtesy of senior guard Ben Hansbrough, giving Notre Dame a 42-41 lead.

“I just felt like I was in the zone last night,” Scott said. “[Martin] started out in the zone, and I guess he passed it on, and I passed it on to Ben. That’s the great thing about our team, anybody can start feeling it at any moment.”

In the burn offense, Notre Dame works the shot clock down to 10 seconds before looking to attack the hoop, on every possession, to the extent that on some possessions Notre Dame endures a shot clock violation, and thus a turnover, rather than give the ball back to its opponent quickly.

“We are still just as aggressive as we normally are, it just takes us longer to get to it,” Martin said. “We don’t stop looking to score, we just wait for it, wait for it, let the clock burn down a little bit, then we have our aggressive mindset the rest of the shot clock.”

Thus, the Irish force their opponent to play defense for 30 seconds at a time, rather than the usual 15 to 20.

“I felt it was definitely frustrating [Pittsburgh] a little bit,” Martin said. “When you have to play defense for 30 seconds every time down the floor, it gets old. I could tell they were getting a little frustrated.”

As Pittsburgh’s frustration grew Monday night, its deep bench stewed, not having an opportunity to create a difference in the game. Notre Dame avoided foul trouble, and its starters controlled the pace throughout the slow-paced, close match. This storm resulted in a Notre Dame upset that Brey said may be the biggest of his career.

Now, the Irish head into a nine-day break before heading to DePaul on Feb. 3 for the second half of its Big East season.

With the break, the NCAA tournament will be on Notre Dame’s mind, an invitation to which could come as a result of the burn, just as it did last season.

“If it wouldn’t be for [the burn], we wouldn’t have gotten a bid last year,” Brey said. “So you have a great selling point.”