Irish seeking defensive improvement as ACC play ramps up
Manuel De Jesus | Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Sixth in the nation in field-goal percentage. Fourth-lowest turnover rate. Third in offensive efficiency.
Sounds like a championship-caliber team right?
Well, Notre Dame went 3-3 over the break bringing its overall record to 10-5 and 1-2 in the ACC.
The Irish have one of the most efficient offenses in the country, so what’s been missing?
In the Crossroads Classic against Indiana last month, the Irish held a 10-point lead at halftime while shooting 53.1 percent from the field. In the second half, the Hoosiers (14-3, 4-0 Big Ten) stormed back from a 16-point deficit and outscored the Irish 17-2 in the final six-and-a-half minutes of the game to win 80-73.
Against the then fifth-ranked Cavaliers, Notre Dame had four players in double figures while shooting 48 percent from the field as a team. The Irish also won the three-point battle against the Cavaliers (13-3, ACC 2-2), connecting on seven shots from long distance to Virginia’s four shots. However, the Irish allowed Virginia to go on a 21-4 run in the first half that propelled the Cavaliers to a safe lead for the majority of the night. They also converted 57.1 percent of their field goal attempts to hold that lead and eventually win 77-66.
Saturday, Notre Dame committed just three turnovers, shot 57.1 percent from the field and scored 40 points in the paint. But Pittsburgh matched the Irish with just three turnovers, shot 59.4 percent from the field and knocked down 10 three-pointers. Despite Notre Dame’s attempts at making a comeback in a game that saw the Panthers (14-1, 3-0 ACC) take an 18-point lead on two separate occasions, Pittsburgh held on for an 86-82 win.
“I think it’s us doing things together for 40 minutes,” senior forward Zach Auguste said. “We got to do things for full games. Sometimes we tend to be lackadaisical on defense. Sometimes we take big shots on offense. That’s just playing hard for 40 minutes, and that’s something we need to continue to work on and get better at.”
The inability to keep opposing offenses from scoring has been the Achilles heel of this Notre Dame team all season. The stats perfectly tell the story. Notre Dame ranks 213th in the nation in points allowed per possession, 207th in defensive rebounds per game and 185th in opponent field-goal percentage. Who carries the responsibility for the Irish to turn things around defensively?
According to junior guard Demetrius Jackson, it all lies on him and junior guard Steve Vasturia.
“I think it’s going to be up to me and Steve to get us started defensively,” Jackson said. “Especially because that seems to be an area where we kind of struggle sometimes in the beginning [of games]. So, we can talk about it as much as we want, but actually going out and making plays defensively, getting the stops, going and grabbing a big rebound, taking a charge. Different things like that. We lead with our actions and our teammates will follow.”
The message from the team was optimistic despite the recent struggles because they acknowledged the season is still young and dismissed any reason for anyone to panic.
“It’s been up and down, but we know it’s going to be a long season,” Auguste said. “I think it’s up to, not just the coaches, but the captains. Also continuing to remind the team that it’s going to be a long season. The ACC is going to be a challenge. It’s not going to be easy, and nothing’s going to be handed to us.”
On Wednesday night the Irish host Georgia Tech, who is coming off a marquee 68-64 victory over No. 4 Virginia on Saturday. The Yellow Jackets (11-5, 1-2 ACC) have revitalized their offense this season with the additions of seniors guard Adam Smith and forward Nick Jacobs, transfers from Virginia Tech and Alabama, respectively. Smith has averaged 14.8 points per game this season while Jacobs has contributed 10.1 points and 5.7 boards per game. Against the Cavaliers, both led the team in scoring with 16 points apiece.
Despite being up against a possible 1-3 start in ACC play, Irish head coach Mike Brey said he isn’t concerned about his team’s confidence.
“We’re going to be loose, and we’re going to play,” Brey said. “I think it’s more important for us to really bounce back. We’ve done this before. This group has been good of bouncing back after disappointment. We’re in that mode again, and we’re playing a much-improved Georgia Tech team, who’s like Pitt with graduate transfers and really reinvented themselves on the offensive end of the floor.”
Even with the majority of the season still in play, it could be a cause for concern for the Irish if they fall to the Yellow Jackets. Since 2010, no ACC team has won the regular season or ACC tournament title with more than four losses in conference play, which would mean that Notre Dame would have to finish the season 13-1 to be in contention for a conference championship.
“I’m always talking to the younger guys,” Jackson said. “Talking to [Auguste]. The whole team. We gotta continue to work hard, keep a positive mind and positive things will follow. I think we’re getting better. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about our team. We’re doing some really good things. Not turning the ball over. We’re turning the ball over a lot less. So there’s a lot of positives to take away from our game, but at the end of the day we just gotta get wins.”
Notre Dame hosts Georgia Tech at Purcell Pavilion on Wednesday night in their second-consecutive home conference matchup — the game tips at 9 p.m.