Tar Heels' athleticism a mismatch for Notre Dame

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND-How ’bout a quick Notre Dame men’s basketball quiz?

Who was the last Irish player to pull off an alley-oop dunk?

C’mon, think. Think. Hmmm. How ’bout Ryan Humphrey, more than a decade ago? Maybe… maybe … Carleton Scott got one before he bailed a few years back.

Whatever … That’s the point.

Right now, Notre Dame just isn’t built for that kind of play.

It was never so obvious as it was in Notre Dame’s matinee loss to North Carolina, 73-62, Saturday.

In terms of basketball skills, primarily shooting, the Irish and the Tar Heels might not have been that far apart on this particular afternoon. Carolina shot 44 percent (27-of-61) while Notre Dame shot 46 (25-of-55).

The troubling numbers for the Irish revealed the athletic deficiencies.

  • The Tar Heels won the war waged on the boards, 37-32. A 9-2 edge on the offensive glass in the first half was particularly unnerving.
  • Notre Dame committed 17 turnovers. Ugh.
  • North Carolina outscored the Irish 44-26 in the paint. The domination in rebounds may have had something to do with that.

Hard to fix a lack of athleticism. As even the most astute coaches say: It is what it is.

Earlier this season, Irish coach Mike Brey called himself the loosest coach in America. Things have tightened up dramatically in the last month.

It’s not that he’s not getting answers. The concern is that 24 games into a very difficult season, new questions keep popping up. A program that used to pride itself on taking care of the basketball is suddenly careless with possessions. A group that used to spit in the eye of adversity has turned fragile.

It became painfully obvious in the final couple minutes of the first half and the first three minutes of the second.

A fast start, which included a nine-point lead in the first six minutes, deteriorated into a double-digit deficit before the halftime popcorn was eaten. An 8-2 Carolina run after intermission left the Irish on their heels.

“We never could get any rhythm or confidence back in the second half,” Brey said.

Notre Dame didn’t score in the final 3:49 of the first half when its five-point lead dissolved into a four-point deficit. Everything positive achieved in the first 16 minutes of the first half was dwarfed by a confident, determined — and quite athletic — bunch of Tar Heels.

The Irish barely could manage with the interior punch Carolina supplied.

“We should have fought together as a team,” said Irish forward Zach Auguste, who had 10 points, but, at 6-foot-9, just four rebounds. “We couldn’t step out and compete.

“We lost focus on our goal (in the first half). We tried to keep them off the glass. At the half, we focused on trying to be aggressive.”

“We just had to focus on boxing out,” said 6-5 guard Pat Connaughton, who led the Irish with 10 rebounds. “That’s what hurt us in the first half. In the second half, it was turnovers and transition defense.

“(Rebounding) is just focusing on the little things. They’re long and athletic. It’s a matter of paying attention to detail, boxing out, and those things.”

Connaughton should rarely, if ever, be Notre Dame’s leading rebounder.

Brey’s options are limited. He went with a big lineup. He went with a small lineup. The Irish were all over the map in terms of combinations and nothing negated the athletic moves Carolina was able to make.

That’s a concern.

Without options, a coach is lost. Identity is still a mish-mash of lineups with the same results. What works one night (Notre Dame had a 33-28 rebounding edge on top-ranked Syracuse last Monday) doesn’t necessarily translate to the next.

This is a team with problems, and the clock is running out.

Either find a solution quickly, or settle on playing for next year.

And make recruiting some athletes a priority.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6318

Nortrh Carolina forward Kennedy Meeks, left, grabs a rebound as Notre Dame forward Garrick Sherman defends during the first half of Saturday's game in South Bend, Ind. The Irish gave up nine offensive rebounds in the first half of a 73-62 defeat. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)