Every few years, another barometer rolls down the basketball boulevard and allows Notre Dame to understand that what it does on defense matters.
Overwhelmed by the athleticism that attacked in waves during that first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Irish spent the spring of 2014 concentrating solely on guarding. Offseason workouts weren’t about running offensive sets or even running pickup. It was about getting in a stance and guarding, then boxing out and battling for rebounds and loose balls like their ACC lives depended on it.
In many ways, they did. To do anything in this league, the Irish learned that they also had to do something on defense.
Heading into 2014-15, the Irish adopted the “kill” stat. Three consecutive stops equaled one kill. It’s not an official conference or NCAA stat, but it was one that an Irish team that went 32-6 and 14-4 in the ACC lived by that season. Close your eyes and you still can see and hear former power forward Austin Torres on the sideline gesturing and screaming to the five on the floor to get one more stop and secure the kill.
Six years later, the kill has kind of run its course. It’s still around, but sort of stale.
Notre Dame (6-9; 3-6 ACC) needed something different as a reminder to take defense seriously, a stat again not measured in the league or by NCAA standards, but still important.
Welcome to the stop-score.
Defense around the Irish has been different since the middle of January. Coming home from a two-game road swing through Virginia — both league losses to ranked teams — something about Notre Dame had to change. As was the cases six seasons ago, opponents were having too easy a time on offense. They forced the Irish to take a long look at what they were doing on defense and figure out how to fix it.
Looks like they figured out how to fix it.
On Saturday, Notre Dame pummeled Pittsburgh by 26 points in its most lopsided league road win in five years. The Irish set a season high for points in a league game with 84. It was a second straight league road win, and a game that saw four Irish score double figures.
It was the defensive numbers that left an impression. Afterward, coach Mike Brey mentioned that the Irish had 24 stop-score sequences — get a stop on one end, then get a score on the other. The 24 were a season high for Notre Dame. The previous best was 15.
“Our defensive stances have come a long way,” Brey said.
How encouraged is Brey by what the Irish have done of late on defense?
Especially because the program hasn’t had much of an identity on that end since Brey arrived. They’ve been known more as a group that would outscore you than smother you.
“That has been through my 21 years a little bit of a roller coaster, who we are defensively,” Brey said. “Coming off the Virginia road trip, we really had to challenge our guys and challenge each other.”
It’s worked. Since allowing 77 points to No. 16 Virginia Tech in a 14-point loss on Jan. 10 and 80 in a 12-point loss to No. 14 Virginia three days later, Notre Dame dusted off its defensive drills. Boston College scored 70 on Jan. 16 before Notre Dame got serious.
In the last three league games — at Miami (win), home to Virginia Tech (loss) and Saturday at Pittsburgh (win) — Notre Dame has allowed an average of 59.6 points. That three-game defensive run of limiting teams 58, 62 and 59 points in league games is Notre Dame’s best burst since early in the 2017-18 season when it allowed 59, 58 and 49 in league wins over Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Syracuse.
Part of it is playing less-than-fluid offensive teams. Part of it also is a collective commitment to keep those offenses from getting in gear. Even average offensive teams often look good against Notre Dame.
“It’s who wants it more,” said power forward Juwan Durham. “We just have to go out there and show we want it more.”
Want it more by sitting in a stance and guarding your guy, then helping a teammate guard his guy. Then boxing out and gang rebounding. Don’t assume that Durham and fellow power forward Nate Laszewski are going to grab all the rebounds. On Saturday, junior guard Dane Goodwin snatched nine. Graduate student Nik Djogo had six. That was a big reason for the two dozen stop-scores.
“Just staying in front of guys and pursuing the ball and getting out and running has been key for us,” Goodwin said. “We’ve gotten a lot better on that the last couple weeks.”
Getting stop-scores makes everything easier on offense. No stop-scores and the game’s a grind.
With such a quick turnaround between Saturday’s win (the Irish didn’t get back until almost noon Sunday because of weather) and Tuesday’s early and odd start time (5 p.m.) against Wake Forest (5-7; 2-7), Brey had zero plan to show the Irish anything they did offensively against the Panthers.
Those 84 points were nice and needed, but how about allowing only 58? How about holding the other team to 31.5 percent from the floor and 30.8 percent from 3? How about those 24 stop-and-scores? How about the latest KenPom defensive numbers that have seen the Irish boost their adjusted defense from around 200 a couple weeks ago to the current spot of 140?
None of it is Virginia-like, but the defense has been better. That’s what led the Irish film session. No offense, but no clips of offense needed.
“We know how to play on that end of the floor,” Brey said. “We’ve gotta keep sitting down in a stance and guarding our guy and see if we can ring up those stop-score analytics.”