Notre Dame men's basketball: Defensive tinkering continues for ND

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Orchestrating just about everything during his high school basketball career allowed Notre Dame freshman guard Demetrius Jackson little time to rest. So on those occasions when he needed to catch his breath before again going full-throttle with the ball in his hands, Jackson would ease up for a play or two on defense. Seven games into his collegiate career, including the last two as a starter, Jackson has had to forget that approach. As much as he was tuned in to what he needed to do on offense when he was at Marian High School. Jackson has learned that everyone has to be focused on the defensive end if the Irish are to have a chance. “High school, you could get away with taking a couple possessions off defensively, but not in college,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to play defense every possession, be locked in and engaged.” That worked in spurts during Tuesday’s 98-93 loss to No. 23 Iowa.Notre Dame delivered stops to climb out of an 11-point deficit. But when it became a one-possession game, and the Irish needed to be even more engaged, they didn’t do it. A mental breakdown here, another lapse there, kept them from making an early-season statement. “We can’t do that,” said junior swingman Pat Connaughton. “We’ve got to be tuned in defensively at all times. It’s having each other’s backs.” Working with a starting lineup that features four perimeter players – guards Eric Atkins, Connaughton, Jerian Grant and Jackson with power forward Garrick Sherman – allows the Irish to better space the floor.That creates more lanes for the guards to get in deep for high-percentage shots. On Tuesday, Notre Dame scored a season-high 50 points in the paint. But all those open areas available to drive and kick and get clean looks have derailed the Irish defensive balance. When Atkins or Grant or Jackson probe the gaps and get into the gut of the defense, another guard may be camped in the corner or cutting along the baseline. That leaves one less guard to protect the backcourt in transition. Be it an Irish make or miss, Iowa got out quickly for many easy baskets. So when Notre Dame (5-2) returned to work Thursday in preparation for Saturday’s first-round Gotham Classic home game against Delaware (5-3), the Irish emphasized ways to be better balanced and better overall defensively. That balancing act – only Sherman was regularly sent to the offensive boards while the other four were in charge of getting back — means team rebounding likely takes a hit. Iowa out-rebounded Notre Dame 36-26, something that may again occur with a smaller lineup. “That’s where we’re still making an adjustment,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. With the smaller lineup likely to stay, it’s paramount that the group develops the defensive cohesion they struggled to sustain in Iowa. There were possessions – critical ones late in the second half after it became a one-possession contest – when the Irish five were not on the same defensive page. It may have been three for this possession, four for that one. It has to reach a point where players don’t have to be told that a teammate has their back on a particular defensive possession. They just know it. “I want that group better on the defensive end, more attention to detail,” Brey said. “That’s where we’re still searching.” Last season, opponents averaged 63.5 points, shot 42 percent from the field and 32.5 percent from 3. The Irish finished with a (+4.2) rebounding advantage, forced 10.2 turnovers and had 5.0 steals a game. Seven games into this season, opponents are averaging 69.7 points, shooting 43.7 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3. The Irish have a (+6.9) rebounding advantage, force 13.4 turnovers and 8.3 steals with a smaller lineup still figuring out how to best hassle the opposition with a combination of defensive looks (Man? Zone?) and pressure. “I feel like we haven’t done well defensively,” Jackson said. “We give good effort and everything but to be a great defensive team, which we want to be, we just have to be better and get more stops.” Great and defense are two words seldom associated with Notre Dame. But for Brey, a successful defensive showing limits an opponent’s field-goal percentage and second-shot chances. Anything under 40 percent is super; 42 even is acceptable. Iowa shot 56.9 percent, a season high for an Irish opponent. The Hawkeyes also had 12 second-chance points. It was the third time in seven games that an Irish opponent has finished with double-digit second-chance points. “Both those areas have been a struggle for us,” Brey said. Those struggles Tuesday overshadowed a ridiculously-efficient offensive effort in the second half against one of the nation’s stingiest defensive squads. Notre Dame scored 50 points, shot 54 percent from the field and committed only one turnover. That effort gives the Irish a chance every night. The defense doesn’t have to be great, but it does have to be good enough – and better Saturday thanTuesday – at key times.“I know that we can play as well on the defensive end as we do on the offensive end together,” Brey said. “But it hasn’t been enough.” It has to be. Soon. 574-235-6153 Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame's Demetrius Jackson is guarded by Indiana State's Khristian Smith Sunday November 17, 2013. at the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center. Indiana State beat the Irish 83-70 for Notre Dame's first non- conference loss in November at the Joyce in Mike Brey's career with the Irish. SBT Photo/MIKE HARTMAN