Irish hoops squad dials it up on defense

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Watching from a distance as the 2013-14 college basketball season disintegrated for Notre Dame, an ultra-gifted guard exiled over academics realized what needed to be different when he returned.

He can score it and handle it and operate like few in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He is considered the “ultimate creator” by his head coach, and plays in ways where large chunks of games come easily to him.

But if the Irish are to do anything to improve a 6-12 league showing, fifth-year senior guard Jerian Grant knows he has to be better on a side of the floor that he often took, well, for granted.

There were times in previous seasons when he would use his length and quickness to jump passing lanes, sniff out some steals, deny teams with deflections, and be pretty solid. But there also were a lot of nights when Grant, and the Irish in general, took too many possessions off; almost as if everyone was biding their time until the ball crossed the other side of halfcourt. Only then was time to really get to work.

That mindset has to stop, and Grant knows it starts with him.

“I’m going to have to play a lot better defensively for our team to be better,” said Grant. “I have to take every possession seriously. It means a lot more to me now.

“As long as I continue to do what I’m doing, guys will follow.”

There were times last season when the Irish seemingly couldn’t stop anyone in the ACC from doing anything. Close conference contests weren’t really that close in reality, because the Irish never looked like an outfit that was going to get those handful of stops to make it really matter. A one-possession deficit felt more like two or three or four.

Among the 15 ACC teams, Notre Dame ranked 11th or lower in six of eight major defensive categories. The Irish were 12th in blocked shots (3.0), 13th in scoring defense (70.0), 13th in field goal percentage defense (.451) and last – 15th – in 3-point field-goal percentage defense (.385). In 18 league games, the highest Notre Dame finished in any defensive statistical category was ninth – rebounding defense (33.6) and steals (4.7).

Out of 345 Division I teams, Notre Dame’s numbers ranked 195 for scoring defense, 245 for field goal percentage defense and a mind-numbing 334 in 3-point field goal percentage defense.

Notre Dame barely scratched the surface in carving an identity for itself in its new league. Can the Irish do better the second time around?

“We’ve got to start on the defensive end,” Brey said. “That was a real problem for us.”

New league, new look

Defense was a problem because the ACC, in some ways, took the Irish by surprise. As a member of the Big East, Notre Dame could get away with not worrying about a particular player or two on the defensive scouting report. Their skills just weren’t that sharp. Notre Dame could sink back into its “11” defense – man-to-man pressure that started at the 3-point line and featured jamming the lane in help situations. If a player or two was left open, that was OK. They weren’t going to make the Irish pay.

But not in the ACC, where few on the floor are offensive liabilities.

“This league shoots it better than the Big East,” Brey said. “The skill level in this league and the basketball IQ is different. You don’t have as many non-shooters on teams as you did in the Big East.

“You can’t play off people.”

Most of the fall workouts have centered on the Irish operating out of straight man pressure. No clogging the lane. No dismissing anyone on the perimeter. It’s been about more ball pressure than the Irish have offered. Maybe ever. It’s about constantly tracing the ball and contesting passes, shots, looks. Everything.

The next time Brey adds some 2-3 zone drills to the practice plan will be the first. It hasn’t been so much as discussed the first two weeks.

“Our man-to-man habits had to improve,” Brey said. “We’ve stayed with them.”

There is a new defensive standard. A higher standard. It started in the spring when Grant still was separated from school. Workouts featured only six returning Irish. There wasn’t much else to do but get in the gym, divide into two groups of three and go at one another in defensive drills that became borderline combative.

“It broke some of us, but we needed to learn that again, like, 'this is what it takes to get to the top,'” said power forward Zach Auguste. “We need to fight and scratch and claw our way up.”

Ready, willing, able

The pieces just fit differently. Auguste is poised to be the main rim protector. The 6-foot-10 junior is more agile and adept at altering/blocking shots than last season’s staple, Garrick Sherman. At 6-9, 260 pounds, freshman Martinas Geben is ACC-ready to spell Auguste in the post. Brey considers sophomore guard Steve Vasturia the team’s best perimeter defender. Small forward Pat Connaughton will log many minutes as the second big, but the 6-5 senior plays closer to his 6-11 wingspan. Connaughton led the ACC last season in defensive rebounds (5.9 per game). Freshman Bonzie Colson finds a way to the ball. Eight practices in, he ranked second in overall efficiency behind Grant.

“All I know,” Brey said of Colson,” is he gets rebounds.”

And on this team, where interior size is an issue, rebounds means minutes.

“There’s a lot of (defensive) potential,” said junior forward Austin Burgett.

Brey spent one recent film session showing clip after clip of Burgett and his willingness to work on the defensive end. There was Burgett rotating over to defend a drive. There was Burgett helping a teammate try to figure out a ball screen. There was Burgett trying to take a charge, block a shot and get a rebound. Brey compared the effort to former Irish swingman Scott Martin, who has long been a program standard for help defense.

Burgett may be ready to play the same way.

“He’s very unselfish defensively,” Brey said.

Then there’s sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson, who fell into an abyss last season as he scrambled to figure out where he fit. Should he score? Run the team? A combination of both? He wondered so much about his game that it affected the Irish game.

Jackson no longer wonders or worries. For him, and for the Irish, it all starts on the defensive end. There, Jackson hounds the other team’s point guard up and down and around the floor. That relentlessness disrupts the other team’s rhythm and allows his four teammates to also lock in while guarding their guy.

“I need to set the tone on defense,” Jackson said. “I’m going to work my tail off for this team to get back to where we need to be.”

During one scrimmage situation last week, Jackson escorted freshman guard Matt Farrell up the floor. When Farrell went right, Jackson was there. When Farrell went left, so did Jackson. His pressure and pursuit created a turnover. Off a break the other way, Jackson finished with a left-handed layup. On the ensuing possession, Jackson was right back at it defensively. More of his ball pressure forced a turnover and a loose ball. Jackson dived the floor to secure it, then called for a timeout.

Once the break was granted, Jackson lay on the court of several seconds. A couple teammates ran over to pick him up, but Jackson just couldn’t move. He was that spent.

“The way he’s defending and starting our defense with his ball pressure, it’s exhausting and unselfish,” Brey said. “It’s a heck of a workout. He pressures the ball unlike anybody we’ve had here.

“I like where he’s at.”

There still will be nights when guarding guys around the rim and out the 3-point line will be a challenge, but they know now there’s no middle ground. To succeed in this league, for this season to be different, they better guard.

“Last year, we struggled defensively. But this year, guys are really putting a lot of energy and effort into defense,” Grant said. “Guys are taking practice more seriously. When we get on the court, we just play harder.”

Austin Burgett, here blocking a Jabari Parker shot in January, and the Notre Dame men's basketball team have made defense more of a priority during preseason.SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN