Have Notre Dame men found offensive footing?
Once enough was enough and it was obvious Notre Dame couldn’t continue on its current course, the men’s basketball program detoured in a direction it rarely has ventured the last 14 years.
Out went the Irish offensive philosophy of allowing players freedom to cut and move and pick apart defenses with their basketball intellect that has been a staple under coach Mike Brey. In went a more choreographed approach, where sets and deliberate movements are the standard.
The deviation delivered consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference victories for Notre Dame (14-12, 5-8) for the first time this season, including the first on the road Sunday against Boston College, heading into Wednesday’s at Miami (Fla.).
“There’s more predictable movement than ever before since I’ve been here,” Brey said. “There’s not enough freedom to play.”
That freedom figured to fizzle after guard Jerian Grant announced in late December that academics cost the spring semester at Notre Dame. Considered by Brey the “ultimate creator for people,” Grant had the ability to decipher defenses and usually make the right call whether to drive it and dish or get to the rim.
With Grant gone, Brey offered a soft target date of Feb. 1 for the Irish to find an identity. That date came and went and Notre Dame was no closer to figuring it out. There were flashes, like when the Irish used four guards to carve up Duke in the league opener or when big men Tom Knight and Garrick Sherman tag-teamed in the Carrier Dome to scare top-ranked and undefeated Syracuse.
But getting good, consistent offense remained a struggle. Brey admitted this month that one of the most frustrating aspects of a frustrating season was his inability to figure out how to help his players to do what this program had long done best — score.
It bottomed out Feb. 8 in the loss to North Carolina. Notre Dame labored to get to 62 points and committed 17 turnovers in an 11-point loss that seemed more like 31.
Something had to change, so something did heading into the Feb. 11 home game against Clemson. Brey committed to playing two bigs together — Sherman and Zach Auguste to start for some early interior opportunities before Austin Burgett and Knight bring energy off the bench. He instructed guard Eric Atkins to call more halfcourt sets like “circle” and “single-double.”
Now more methodical, Notre Dame found its offensive footing to beat Clemson (68-64) and Boston College (73-69) by averaging 70.5 points, shooting 45.6 from the field, 35 percent from 3, 77.7 percent from the foul line and committing an average of only 9.5 turnovers.
The first two possessions against Boston College highlighted the new look.
In previous seasons, junior captain Pat Connaughton would get chances from the corners or the wings off Grant drives and kick-outs. On Sunday, Connaughton worked off a Sherman screen near the low block, cut baseline and curled off another screen by Auguste. Connaughton took a pass from guard Steve Vasturia, then fed a rolling Auguste to the hoop. He was fouled and hit two free throws.
Next time down, Connaughton motioned for the ball to start with Vasturia on the left wing. Connaughton again ran the baseline, curled off another Auguste screen, then took a pass from Vasturia for a short and simple jumper just inside the foul line.
When the Irish run their pet “circle” motion set, the handlers out front can look for whoever’s sliding off screens from the bigs, or can feed a rolling big to the basket. It’s an easy, high-reward, low-risk way to play.
“We’ve figured out how to simplify ourselves offensively and that’s helped us take better care of the ball,” Brey said. “It’s somewhat predictable, but if you screen well and read screens, it’s effective and it’s been for two games.”
The way they play is radical for Atkins compared to when he was a freshman reserve on a team that featured five senior starters. Rarely did the Irish run many sets during a 27-7 season. They were allowed much freedom because they knew what to do and when to do it. Then they did it scary well.
“If you had a basketball IQ that was 100, I think everyone on that team was at a 90,” said Atkins, who led the Big East in assist/turnover ratio that season. “We would just cut, move, cut move and the people would make plays out of that.
“That was a very easy team to play with free-flowing wise.”
This Irish outfit hasn’t been for myriad reasons — the reliance on two bigs, the lack of a versatile forward like a Tim Abromaitis or a Scott Martin who could stretch defenses and relying heavily on so many young guys. Atkins was the lone freshman to see time on the 2010-11 team. This season, it’s not uncommon for the lineup to feature all three freshmen, who have struggled at times to learn what to do with that freedom. So it’s time for specific sets to keep it simple.
“With who we have with our personnel right now, I think it’s good that people know exactly where to go and have sets that they know their role,” Atkins said. “These last two games, we’re finally finding an identity on the offensive side of the ball.”
Not only have the Irish made it look easier, they’ve looked more relaxed, more sure of where the ball’s going. They’ll have to be again Wednesday against Miami (12-13; 3-9) and its 2-3 zone, which, like Syracuse can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.
This is a challenge the Irish believe they’re ready for, especially after the last 10 days of good practices and even better game results.
“We’re figuring this thing out a little bit,” Brey said. “It’s funny, but I do think we’re getting a little bit better.”
WHO: Notre Dame (14-12 5-8 ACC) vs. Miami (12-13, 3-9)
WHERE: BankUnited Center (7,900), Coral Gables, Fla.
WHEN: 9 p.m. Wednesday
TV: None locally.
RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).
ONLINE: ESPN3. Also, follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDInsider.
WORTH NOTING: Miami has lost three of its last four following Saturday’s 52-45 loss at Virginia Tech. The Hurricanes shot 32.3 percent from the field, 23.5 percent from 3 and 46.2 percent from the free throw line. ... Miami lost 86.7 percent of its scoring, 85.8 percent of its rebounding and all five starters from last year’s squad that finished 29-7, 15-3 and first place in the ACC. The season earned coach Jim Larranaga a nine-year contract extension through 2022. ... Senior guard Rion Brown leads the Hurricanes in scoring (14.4), rebounding (6.2) and minutes (34.8). ... Miami’s three league wins have come against teams that beat Notre Dame — Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina. ... Notre Dame currently is in 10th place in the ACC; Miami is 13th. ... BankUnited Center is the smallest arena in the ACC. ... The Hurricanes close the regular season with three of five on the road. ... The all-time series is tied 4-4. Notre Dame is 2-2 at home against Miami, 1-1 on the road and 1-1 at neutral sites. ... Miami and Notre Dame have never met in Coral Gables. Both previous meetings were in downtown Miami. ... This is the only regular-season meeting between the schools. ... This is their first meeting since a 72-62 Notre Dame win Jan. 28, 2004. The schools have not met in South Florida since a 90-77 Irish win over then-No. 13 Miami on Jan, 23, 2002. ... This is the second of three road games in seven days for Notre Dame, which won Sunday at Boston College and visits No. 14 Virginia on Saturday. ... Notre Dame looks to win a third-straight league game for the first time this season. It would be the first time the Irish won three straight since a three-game streak in late November to early December.
WORTH QUOTING: “When we’re on the road, we’re totally focused on the basketball game. At home, you’re going to class, you’ve got a lot of other things going on in your life. I don’t know if the guys just put too much pressure on themselves to try and play well in front of the hometown fans. It’s really been noticeable, not just in our records but in how we play and how we shoot the ball.” — Miami coach Jim Larranaga, whose team is 5-8 at home, 0-6 in league play.