Cold shooting dooms Irish against Syracuse zone
Brian Hartnett | Tuesday, February 24, 2015
For much of the season, No. 9 Notre Dame has had little to worry about on the offensive end.
Entering Tuesday night’s matchup against Syracuse, the team ranked second nationally with a field-goal percentage of 51.3 percent and 10th in the country in scoring with an average of 79.8 points per game.
Against the Orange (18-10, 9-6 ACC) and their notorious 2-3 zone defense, however, Notre Dame’s offense proved to be the team’s undoing, as the Irish (24-5, 12-4) shot 34.7 percent from the field and tied their second-lowest point total of the season in a 65-60 loss.
Irish senior guard Pat Connaughton said Notre Dame’s struggles on the offensive end could be blamed on two culprits: the team’s failure to convert open looks and the pressure provided by Syracuse’s zone defense.
“One thing you can take out of [Tuesday’s game] is we didn’t shoot the ball well, and we needed a little work against zone,” Connaughton said.
Notre Dame made just five baskets in the first half, scoring nearly as many points from the free-throw line (10) as it did from the field (12). While the Irish upped their field-goal percentage from 20.8 percent in the first half to 48 percent in the second half, their struggles from beyond the arc lasted the entire game, as they finished 3-for-22 from 3-point range.
Notre Dame senior guard Jerian Grant said Notre Dame’s problems on offense were not due to a lack of scoring opportunities.
“I thought we played pretty well against the zone,” he said. “Like I said, we got the looks we wanted, we just didn’t knock them down today.”
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim likewise acknowledged that Notre Dame didn’t knock down many shots that usually fall for the Irish.
“Notre Dame makes 3s; that’s how they win,” Boeheim said. “If they shoot [3-for-22], you should beat them.”
Syracuse came away with the road victory by playing a game with which it is not exactly unfamiliar. The Orange, who are not eligible for postseason play due to self-imposed sanctions, surrender a shade under 63 points per game and also force 14 turnovers per game, exactly the number they took from the Irish on Tuesday night.
“I’m going to give all the credit to [Syracuse],” Connaughton said. “They have a great team, obviously, and they play great defense.”
Syracuse sophomore forward B.J. Johnson, who led the Orange in scoring with 19 points, said Notre Dame’s ball movement played right into his team’s defensive strategy.
“We did a good job of scouting [Notre Dame], and we knew that a lot of their points come from 3s,” Johnson said. “So whenever the ball got to the high post, instead of dropping like we usually do, we stayed out in the corner and made them put the ball on the floor and make tough shots.”
Shots proved to be particularly tough to come by for Grant, who didn’t make his first field-goal attempt until there was 18:38 remaining in the game.
Irish coach Mike Brey said Grant’s early strategy revolved around finding his teammates.
“I think he was probably a little overly unselfish,” Brey said of Grant. “When we got him to the foul line a couple of times, I would have loved to see him drive it, maybe draw a foul.
“But he kicked to shooters, which were pretty good shots, so you can’t fault him altogether.”
While the Irish aren’t likely to face another team with Syracuse’s defensive alignment, Brey mentioned that they will face some zone defense in their next matchup against Louisville on March 4. Notre Dame can improve against the zone by moving the ball more efficiently, according to Connaughton.
“I think we can move the ball a little faster,” Connaughton said. “I think at times, the ball may have been moving, but we were standing. When you’re standing and you’re not really close enough to the 3-point line to be a threat, they really don’t have to play pressure [defense], and they just can sit back in the zone.
“I think [it’s important to] get into the gaps, be low when you catch it and just put a little pressure on the zone like you do on man-to-man defense.”