Notre Dame seniors take blame for men's basketball season

ANALYSIS

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

GREENSBORO, N.C. — Three words spoken too often during post-game protocol from South Bend to Winston-Salem and all Atlantic Coast Conference points in between said so much about the inaugural season in a new league for the Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

“I don’t know.”

How could a Notre Dame team that played so confidently and so cohesively in shredding the league’s gold standard — Duke — in the conference opener look so lethargic and lost four days later in a home loss to North Carolina State?

“I don’t know.”

Why did an Irish team that took so much pride in being one of the most consistent programs in the Big East, one that handled highs and the lows with equal effectiveness, struggle with any success in the ACC?

“I don’t know.”

What was missing from an outfit that never could shake free of so many starts and stops and stops and stops and starts to get this season off the ground?

“I don’t know.”

How could a program that went 14-13 on the road over its final three seasons in the Big East go 1-8 in the ACC?

“I don’t know.”

Notre Dame (15-17) saw its season end Wednesday with a losing record for the first time since 1998-99 following an 81-69 loss to Wake Forest in the first round of the ACC tournament. When the tournament’s first game tipped at 1:09 p.m., optimism remained that the Irish could find a way to do something they had done but once all year — win two-straight league games. By 3:09, it was all over, as was the school’s streak of 14 consecutive postseason appearances.

For the first time since 2009, Selection Sunday is just another day.

When it ended, senior captain Tom Knight declined to take the easy/company way out. It was time for some accountability. Knight believes the reason this season slipped away could be answered when he and fellow senior captains Eric Atkins and Garrick Sherman looked in the mirror.

“The seniors on this team, we didn’t provide the leadership we needed to give the guys the support and the right direction we needed to go in,” Knight said while fighting off tears in realizing that, outside of the occasional post-work pickup game down the road, his playing career was finished. “It’s on us for that.”

It’s on everyone that the Irish were as disappointing a defensive outfit as the program has ever seen. The Irish never have been a lock-down group, but there were too many times this season when they didn’t seem to want to guard anyone. The coaches tried a little of everything to make something defensively out of nothing. They went man, zone and diamond and one. They went small. They went big.

It never worked, even to the end when Wake Forest shot 61 percent from the field and 70 percent from 3.

Contrary to popular belief, defensive drills were a priority on every practice plan. So why were the Irish so bad defensively?

“That’s a good question,” said coach Mike Brey. “We have racked our brains as a staff on that all season.”

Defensive principles can be preached and preached, but it eventually comes down to want to, and the Irish just didn’t.

“We didn’t have the fire, the will to stop guys on the defensive end,” Knight said.

Knight believes the seniors did everything they could work ethic-wise to set a right tone, but it was those times outside of practice and drills that cost this club. It was in the timeout huddles, on the floor at home and on the road when it came to winning time that the three simply did not or could not deliver.

When their words were spoken, they fell on deaf ears. On unwilling ears. On young ears.

Three years ago, Notre Dame was driven to a 27-7 season by the maniacal intensity of Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough. He held everyone accountable every day for everything about basketball — the way they played, the way they practiced, the way they thought about it. Everyone followed his lead.

Last season, it was the relentless drive of power forward Jack Cooley, who put the Irish on his broad shoulders and made sure everything was OK by getting at least 10 points and 10 rebounds — and often more — nearly every night. Every ball around the rim belonged to Cooley. Every rebound had his name on it. He then went and worked and got them. Everyone followed his lead.

The leadership style of this season’s seniors? Silence.

“Vocally, we weren’t the leaders we should have been,” said Knight. “It allowed guys to. ... We play as a team. Don’t get me wrong, but we were just missing that voice at all times.”

Also missing was that one additional player who would have allowed the Irish to win a close one (they lost eight league games by seven or fewer points) and possibly have a competitive chance in others (Virginia) when they looked light years away from the league’s elite.

Eight days and 50 miles out from the ACC tourney loss, in a hallway of the Dean Smith Center on the campus of North Carolina following a 63-61 loss to end the regular season, Brey admitted that for all the want-to and resilience his guys may have showed this season, they were in a no-win battle because of an inexperienced/incomplete roster.

“We’re down a little bit; we’re a little limited, there’s no question,” Brey said last week. “Guys sometimes have had to play out of their role to give us a chance. Sometimes that’s worked; sometimes that’s not been good, but you don’t have any other choice.”

Because of that, the Irish had no choice but to rely so heavily on Atkins, a point guard who also had to play shooting guard and attack guard, and go-get-yourself something guard. It was all too heavy a burden on the Irish, too easy a scout for the opposition. Eliminate Atkins, and everything became a problem. A massive problem.

“We didn’t have (another) guy we could rely on to go and take guys and score and get a tough bucket,” Knight said. “We needed (another) guard we could rely on at all times.”

Asked in Chapel Hill about playing a guy shy, Atkins insisted he never pondered it. On Wednesday, he did.

“We could say there were not enough stops here or there,” he said of the deficient defense. “We haven’t talked about it, but having another guy to score for us, that would be huge, too.”

That other guy didn’t necessarily have to be the one seated Wednesday in the front row behind the Irish bench. Former guard Jerian Grant was tossed from school for the spring semester following an academic violation. His exit changed everything in terms of how the Irish operated, but there were other candidates who could have jumped into a season-saving role.

Nobody did.

Hailed as someone who salvaged last season with his steady play, Knight could have done more. Touted as the most talented big in the program since former first-round NBA draft pick Ryan Humphrey, sophomore power forward Zach Auguste could have done more. Freshman guard Demetrius Jackson could have shown at least a sliver of a game that made him a McDonald’s All-American. Freshman guard Steve Vasturia looked like a senior at times, someone a year removed from his senior year in high school in others. V.J. Beachem should have been on the five-year plan but was pushed into playing time.

The Irish knew long before they beat Duke that Grant wasn’t going to be a part of anything in the coming weeks and months, but nobody besides Atkins and Sherman and fellow captain Pat Connaughton showed that they could be counted on for more than a cameo.

Twelve different starting lineups, the most Brey has ever utilized in his 14 seasons in South Bend, turned the season into a constant scramble. It was a scramble to figure it all out. A scramble to stay afloat amidst another losing streak. A scramble to find something that might work.

It seldom settled.

“All the changes in the lineups were necessary because we had two or three guys throughout the season who were consistent,” Knight said. “We definitely needed a little more consistency for the four, five, six, seventh guy on the squad, including myself.”

Now it’s over, and likely not soon enough for the Irish, whose charter flight returned Thursday afternoon to Indiana. Brey is back on the road recruiting Friday. Eventually, it will be time to start toward 2014-15. But not yet.

“It’s probably good to put the balls away for a while and recalibrate with next year’s chemistry,” Brey said. “I don’t want the returning guys to have that much of a break. We’ve got to get back into some spirited stuff as we move out of this saga.”

Twitter: TNoie@NDInsider

Notre Dame's Tom Knight (25) competes for the ball with Wake Forest's Travis McKie, left, and Wake Forest's Arnaud William Adala Moto (45) during the first round of the ACC men's basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C.(SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)