Turnovers piling up for Notre Dame men

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

It has long topped the priority list when it comes time to compete for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team, the one rule stressed more than any other.

Freshmen hear it soon after they sign. Sophomores and juniors are reminded of it daily. Even senior leaders, veterans, captains know that to keep doing what they’re doing, they better do it.

The ball is gold. Protect it at all cost.

The Irish were one of the most consistent programs during their latter days in the Big East because they consistently took care of the ball. They seldom gave it away. They protected it at home and on the road. They did it against national-championship caliber competition and against inferior opponents. The Irish often overcame any shortcomings because of their penchant to protect the ball.

It was gold.

It hasn’t even been close to gold, silver, or even bronze, this season. That’s one reason why Notre Dame is scrambling to stay at the break-even mark (12-12 overall) and slowly sinking to the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings (3-8).

Heading into Tuesday’s home game against Clemson (15-7; 6-4), Notre Dame is in 12th place in the 15-team conference standings. Picked in preseason to finish as high as fifth and a possible surprise team to challenge for a conference championship, the Irish have seen their first run through the ACC reduced to a scary stagger.

Losers of eight of its last 10 league games, Notre Dame is struggling because it cannot take even average care of the ball. The Irish treat it as if it’s nuclear.

In the six previous seasons since the NCAA started tracking the assist/turnover ratio statistic in 2007-08, Notre Dame never finished lower than sixth out of 345 NCAA Division I teams. The Irish led the nation in 2008-09 (1.75) and were second in 2009-10. They also were second last season (1.49).

Nearly halfway through, February, Notre Dame ranks 14th in the country in assist-turnover (1.49). That’s good for third in the ACC, but in league games, that number slides to seventh (1.2). The Irish are just too sloppy to succeed.

In its eight league losses, Notre Dame had as many or more turnovers as assists five times. The Irish have had double-digit turnovers in five of eight league losses. Saturday’s loss to North Carolina saw Notre Dame finish with 14 assists but 17 turnovers.

“We turn it over 17 times and you can’t absorb that,” said coach Mike Brey. “Our turnovers have hurt us here during the ACC season.”

The Irish also haven’t been able to absorb the timing of their turnovers. Take Saturday. North Carolina ran off the final nine points of the first half to turn a five-point Irish lead with 3:50 remaining to a four-point deficit. The Irish still were OK. A good possession or two to start the second half would get the home team and a sellout crowd right back into it.

But when freshman guard Steve Vasturia attempted a low-percentage, high-risk pass to a teammate in front of the Irish bench, James Michael McAdoo knocked it away, and then jumped out of bounds to save it. He had enough court awareness to throw ahead to teammate Leslie McDonald for another easy layup.

Yet another turnover also was another example of how an Irish team has leaned sometimes almost too heavily on freshmen. The Irish have been bad with the ball because they’ve played so young.

“We have a lot of young guys that are trying to find their role and find out where they need to be aggressive, where they need to be conscious,” said fifth-year power forward Garrick Sherman. “It’s just a learning experience and we’re going through some growing pains.”

McDonald’s basket put the Tar Heels up six, but it may as well have been 26.

“It almost kind of sets the tone for the half,” Brey said. “That’s really bothering me because we’ve been so good with the ball here.

“If there’s one thing to point to, that’s been a dagger for us.”

The Irish have a veteran guard in Eric Atkins, a veteran wing in Pat Connaughton and a veteran low-post presence in Sherman. All are captains. But all that experience hasn’t been nearly enough to help the Irish be better with the ball. The more the three have tried to make something good happen, the more bad surfaces with a strip, a fumbled pass, another strip, another turnover.

Why?

“I don’t know,” said Connaughton. “I hope if I knew that we’d be able to limit it a little bit. It’s just a matter of doing the things we do, not trying to overdo it.”

That might mean simplifying the offense. There have been too many times where it’s up to Atkins or Connaughton or Sherman to do something as the other two guys on the floor simply stand and watch. That’s left the Irish easy to defend and open to turnovers.

“We’ve just got to move better, everyone, me included, move, cut and screen for each other,” Atkins said. “It seems like guys are just holding the ball way too long and then try to make a decision at the last second. It’s tough to do that.”

It’s also been tough to maintain any semblance of an offensive rhythm. There was a time during the Duke game when Notre Dame played beautiful basketball. The Irish moved. They cut. They passed. They screened. The Blue Devils had no answer.

The offense has since been a root canal. Nobody moves. Nobody cuts. Nobody looks for the extra pass. Assists and points have gone down, turnovers up. The Irish average 15.7 assists per game, but have failed to hit for at least that many in nine of 11 league games. Last year, the Irish averaged 16.8 assists per game, a number they hit in eight of their 18 regular-season league games.

They rank third in the league in overall scoring (73.9) but average 66.5 points in ACC play, which ranks seventh in the conference.

Notre Dame has been good in spurts – the second half of the Duke game, the first half at Maryland, the second half of last week’s near-miss at Syracuse and the first half Saturday – but cannot do it for 40 minutes.

“We really search for a rhythm offensively,” Brey said. “That’s hurt us more than anything since the ACC season has started.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com 574-235-6153 Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Protecting the basketball has been a big issue for Notre Dame in the Atlantic Coast Conference. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)