Did Irish turn corner on defense?

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

Together morning, noon or night nearly every day for the last six months, they sometimes have played defense like five strangers dragged from their office cubicles for lunchtime pickup games.

At 12-11 overall, 3-7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Notre Dame likely will see its run of four consecutive NCAA tournament trips end. The Irish may miss the 20-victory plateau for the first time since 2005-06 while double-digit league losses during its first ACC season are possible.

The reasons for it are multiple. The loss of leading scorer and playmaker Jerian Grant in December due to academics. The injury/health issues of power forward Tom Knight and Austin Burgett. The lack of confidence in closing out close games. But one reason that the season has not gone the way any Irish planned lies a whole lot with the defense.

Notre Dame had chances to win league games at Maryland and Florida State, but couldn’t come up with one stop at a key time. Visiting Virginia ran a clinic of moving without the ball in cutting up the Irish for 32 points in the paint on a night it led by as many as 24. For some stretches, it seemed as if the Irish were a man shy with how easily the Cavaliers got any shot they wanted at any time.

League teams have had a relatively easy go of it on offense. Heading into Saturday’s sold-out home game against North Carolina (15-7; 5-4), Notre Dame ranks 14th in the league in scoring defense (70.4 ppg.), 13th in field goal percentage defense (44.9), 15th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (37.9) and 11th in defensive rebounds (24.1). Opponents in ACC play have been to the free throw line 42 more times than the Irish in the first 10 games.

The Irish often have been at their worst on defense late in shot clocks. Someone in another jersey has routinely found ways to get big baskets or get to the rim and get fouled with two, three, four seconds remaining.

“It’s the focus,” said junior captain Pat Connaughton. “You’re defending for 25 seconds in the shot clock, it’s not over. It’s the end of the day. You’ve got to be ready to dig in for those 35 seconds.”

When asked about some-thing he’d rather not discuss — say, his team’s free-throw issues (64.4 percent in league games) or the extended struggles of freshman guard Demetrius Jackson — Mike Brey’s standard response is that he doesn’t want to over-analyze it. Translation? Let’s move on.

But when the subject of his team’s defensive awareness, especially late in the shot clock, surfaced following last week’s overtime victory over Boston College, Brey didn’t sidestep the situation.

“We missed a few and I almost strangled seven or eight guys throughout,” Brey said seven days ago. “We’re still not good enough in that area and I ain’t sugarcoating that.”

Just when everyone figured it would get worse, it got better. Two nights after seeing so many breakdowns against Boston College, against the nation’s No. 1 squad in unde-feated Syracuse, Brey took his seat in the semicircle timeout during a 22-12 second-half Irish surge fueled by defense and addressed his team. At no point in this season had he been as proud of the defensive effort as he was for a 9:55 stretch in the second half. Notre Dame shaved a14-point deficit to three thanks in large part to defense.

Wait ... what?

Brey’s words even caught the Irish off-guard.

“We haven’t heard that much this year because we really haven’t been playing defense the way we should have played,” said Knight, whose presence on both ends was a big reason for the run. “The second half, we can build on and be better defensively the rest of the year.”

But why then? Against that team? In that atmosphere?

“We just focused in a little bit rather than getting lazy,” said freshman guard Steve Vasturia, who played a key part in the run with his perimeter defense, which Brey believes might be the best on the team. “Everyone was on the backboard. Everyone was in good help defense. There was a lot of communication.”

“We just locked in and had each other’s backs,” Con-naughton said.

Not even 90 seconds into the second half, Brey added Knight to a group of Eric Atkins, Connaughton, Garrick Sherman and Vasturia. He barely made another substi-tution the rest of the way. With Knight working along-side Sherman, the Irish were able to adequately jam it up in the paint, prohibit the Orange forwards from turning the game into a dunk show, limit anything in transition and controlled the rebounding battle.

As a result, there were somewhat positive results. That defensive stretch gave the Irish something to build on moving forward instead of dwelling on having lost seven of their last nine.

“We just had a sense of togetherness,” Knight said. “We communicated well and we realized that we had to stop them.”

Another challenge awaits with North Carolina, which plays a lot like Syracuse. The Tar Heels want to get the ball and go, go, go and keep opposing teams on their defensive heels with relentless transition. To prepare, Brey dusted off some transition defensive drills the last two days that he once used to prepare for Connecticut, which also liked to set a quicker pace.

“They want to play fast,” Brey said of Carolina. “You want them to run their offense. You don’t want them to race by.”

Notre Dame won four of its last six meetings with Con-necticut.

The preparation for North Carolina will be much like the preparation for Syracuse – limit transition and so many easy interior looks. That likely means another long look from the five who nearly went the distance the second half in the Carrier Dome.

“I’m really confident in that group right now,” Brey said. “They were really good. We’ll get back to that look Saturday.”

Monday’s effort finally raised the Irish defensive standard. If they can play as well in that stretch against a Syracuse team that few have slowed, they can do it Saturday against North Carolina, then Tuesday at home against Clemson, then take it on the road for three straight starting eight days from now at Boston College.

“It was a huge step for us defensively,” Atkins said. “We can do it anywhere. We just have to come in and have to do it.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Virginia center Mike Tobey puts up a shot over Notre Dame guard Pat Connaughton during their game Jan. 28 in South Bend. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

WHO: Notre Dame (12-11, 3-7 ACC) vs. North Carolina (15-7, 5-4)

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149)

WHEN: Noon Saturday

TICKETS: The game is sold-out

TV: WBND

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM)

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDInsider.

WORTH NOTING: After starting 0-3 in league play, North Carolina has won four straight and five of six following Tuesday’s 75-63 victory at home over Maryland. Marcus Paige had 25 points and seven assists while Brice Johnson came off the bench with 19 points on 8-of-8 from the field in 22 minutes. … The Tar Heels shot 55 percent in the second half. … North Carolina has non-league victories over Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State and non-league losses to Alabama-Birmingham, Belmont and Texas. … The Tar Heels are 1-3 on the road in ACC play with the win at Georgia Tech. … Paige ranks fifth in the league in scoring (17.1) and first in free throw percentage (90.3). … The Tar Heels rank first in the ACC in rebounding offense (41.3), second in scoring (75.9) and 15th in free throw percentage (61.9). … North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham is a 1984 Notre Dame graduate. He worked at Notre Dame from 1988 to 2000, including time as associate athletic director in charge of Irish men’s basketball. … Former Irish power forward Tom Timmermans is associate director of compliance/monitoring at North Carolina. … Notre Dame power forward Garrick Sherman leads the ACC in field goal percentage (52.1). … Irish swingman Pat Connaughton leads the league in defensive rebounds (6.0). … Saturday is the third sellout of the season for Notre Dame, which is 11-4 at home. … North Carolina leads the all-time series 16-4. The Irish have lost three straight and five of the last six in the series. The last Irish win was Jan. 11, 1992 in Madison Square Garden. … This is North Carolina’s first trip to South Bend since an 80-71 victory Feb. 23, 1994. … North Carolina is one of four league repeat opponents for Notre Dame. The teams meet March 3 in Chapel Hill, the regular-season finale for the Irish.

WORTH QUOTING: “I want to play a lot faster than we’re playing right now. It’s frustrating to me that I can’t get us to play any faster and yet the other team has a great deal to say about that. When they want to spend more time with the shot clock because they value each possession more, that does make it more difficult. You want to get them going but you can’t get going just by speeding yourself up because then you end up taking bad shots and having turnovers. It is a thin line.” — North Carolina coach Roy Williams