No mystery for ACC tourney success for Notre Dame men

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

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Any intrigue that shadowed the Notre Dame men’s basketball team through its initial Atlantic Coast Conference run has evaporated.

Heading into their first league tournament, the Irish have a scouting book on their 14 conference colleagues. There’s no secret what two areas need to be good — really good — for No. 13 seed Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12) against No. 12 Wake Forest (16-15, 6-12) Wednesday in Greensboro, N.C.

Defense and rebounding.

The Irish insist those concern categories can be cured. They aren’t going to get any taller or quicker or more athletic around the rim, but they don’t necessarily have to be to be better.

“It’s just focus,” said guard Eric Atkins. “We always go through lapses of losing focus on defense. That’s a huge key in every single game. If we just stay focused on that side of the ball, defense and rebounding would be fine.”

Coach Mike Brey delivered a few notable numbers to his team last week to stress that statement. The Irish ranked 13th in overall and league games for field goal percentage defense. Opponents shot 44.7 percent from the field in the 31 regular-season games, 45.5 percent in the 18 league games. Brey believes the Irish aren’t far away from being a better-than-average defensive team.

Seriously.

Brey said that if they could just dig in and get three or four more defensive stops, that field-goal percentage defense number would go from third-worst in the league to the team’s annual field goal percentage defensive goal of around 40 percent.

Three more stops would rank the Irish among the league’s top three.

Seriously.

“That’s how fragile it is on that end of the floor,” Brey said. “That’s where we have to be better.”

Rebounding also has been a season-long struggle. Notre Dame couldn’t beat Wake Forest because it couldn’t get a key defensive rebound late in the second half. It couldn’t beat Pittsburgh, a possible second-round league tournament opponent, because it allowed 21 offensive rebounds.

When the Irish outrebounded league teams, they were 5-4. When ACC opponents had their backboard way, the Irish were 1-8.

No rebounds, no chance.

“For us to win a game in the tournament,” Brey said, “that end of the floor has got to be better.”

History lesson

Brey spent the last few days counseling his team on what they need to be better during postseason — defend, rebound — and also touched on ACC tournament history.

Now in its 61st year, and the 25th time it will be held in the city where the league was born in 1953, the ACC tournament holds a special place in Brey’s heart. He shared a story Sunday of how he once sat in class as a sophomore at DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School and listened on a transistor radio as Duke guard Tate Armstrong hung 33 points on Maryland during a 1976 ACC tournament game being held nearby at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. Maryland won 80-78 in overtime.

“There’s a lot of memories for me in this tournament,” said Brey, who also coached in it for eight seasons, with two championships, during his days as a Duke assistant. “I’m trying to let them know it is really an historic event to be a part of.”

And way different than the experience the Irish had during their 18 seasons in the Big East. Those league tournament games at Madison Square Garden often saw fans of different teams — often bitter rivals — mixed together in the same seating sections. With adult beverages flowing so soon after noon, it was common to see a tussle or two break out in the Garden stands come nightfall.

The deeper the Big East tournament journeyed, the more of an edge it carried on the court, in the stands and outside on Seventh Avenue.

In Greensboro, each school has its own designated seating sections. The cheering and jeering is a little more, shall we say, hospitable.

“It’s going to be a little different atmosphere than the Garden,” Brey said. “That’s a rock concert. The ACC is a little more of a symphony. It’s very orderly.”

Arena experience

Though it’s Notre Dame’s first trip to the ACC tournament, it’s the second Irish visit in three seasons to Greensboro Coliseum.

Playing as a No. 7 seed in a 2012 NCAA tournament South Region second-round game, Notre Dame took a 12-point lead in the second half and had a four-point lead over No. 10 seed Xavier with 5:16 remaining following a Jerian Grant 3. The Irish also were up by one with 41 seconds left before letting that and the season slip away in a 67-63 loss.

The Irish had a late chance at possibly tying the game but Grant was called for a lane violation on the first of two Atkins free throws with two seconds left.

“We had a lead, we were going down and were looking toward the next day with a minute and a half left,” said junior captain Pat Connaughton, a freshman on that squad. “We let one get away. It’s similar to things that happened this season.”

Notre Dame lost eight league games by seven or fewer points this season.

That Xavier game ended well after midnight that Friday two years ago. Afterward, Connaughton and former Irish guard Alex Dragicevich, who would eventually transfer to Boston College, found themselves walking through a restaurant drive-thru near the team hotel in search of something to eat.

Connaughton promised no repeat of any late-night/early-morning food run.

“Not doing that after a loss,’ he said. “Hopefully it will be after a win.”

Irish senior captain Garrick Sherman remembers Greensboro well for different reasons. Sitting out the 2011-12 season after transferring from Michigan State, Sherman was prohibited under NCAA regulations from accompanying the Irish traveling party to Greensboro.

But a rule also stipulated that if Sherman paid his own way, he could participate in the Irish open practice, and even sit on the Irish bench for the games. He couldn’t get a drink of water from the cooler near the bench or stay at the team hotel. Those would be NCAA violations.

So Sherman drove the 465-some odd miles from his home in Kenton, Ohio and arrived in Greensboro shortly before the team’s open afternoon practice.

He guessed that it took him about 12 hours.

“That’s not as fun a drive as it seems,” Sherman said. “I put some miles on my car. I’m excited to actually have a team bus and a team plane this time.”

Friends, foes

They spent time last season chasing a state championship as teammates on the St. Joseph’s Prep team in Philadelphia, but Notre Dame guard Steve Vasturia and Wake Forest’s Miles Overton want to send the other home early from the league tournament.

“We’re both looking forward to playing against each other,” said Vasturia. “It should be fun.”

The 6-foot-6, 207-pound Vasturia averaged 20.5 points as a prep senior, when he was named Gatorade player of the year in Pennsylvania and was a two-time Catholic League most valuable player. The 6-4, 210-pound Overton was a two-time All-Catholic League selection. He averaged 15.7 points as a senior as St. Joseph’s finished 24-6.

Vasturia averaged 5.0 points, 2.6 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 22.5 minutes this season. He played in 26 games and made 11 starts. Overton played in 27 games, all as a reserve, and averaged 2.7 points, 0.7 rebounds and 0.6 assists in 8.6 minutes.

“We had a lot of fun playing together and we were both able to go to schools we wanted to go to,” Vasturia said. “He’s a good player so I expect a lot of good things down the road.”

TNoie@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame guard/forward Pat Connaughton, left, forces a five-second violation on North Carolina State guard Desmond Lee (5) during the first half of a NCAA mens college basketball game on Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, at the Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER via FTP