Notre Dame men getting it done on defense

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It was top priority in the offseason, when the six available returning members of the Notre Dame men’s basketball team had no choice last spring but to get in the gym and run drill after drill after drill on one end of the floor.

If the Irish were going to be better than last season’s 15-17 showing, which saw them skip postseason for the first time since many of the current members were toddlers, they would have to be better defensively in every area.

No exceptions. No excuses.

Being better defenders has been a point of constant emphasis, though for a team that has historically been known as such an efficient offensive operation, some slippage early in non-conference play was expected. Yet as the regular season rolls toward the one-third mark heading into Tuesday’s home game against Mount St. Mary’s (2-4), No. 25 Notre Dame (8-1) has continued to guard as if everything depends on it.

“With all the defensive stuff we did this summer, it was more like, we better be this good,” said sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson, whose constant ball pressure out front lights the fuse for every defensive possession. “We worked really hard on defense all offseason. It’s definitely paying off for us.”

The defensive numbers for Notre Dame are better nearly across the board.

According to the latest NCAA statistics, Notre Dame ranks 52nd in the nation (out of 345 Division I teams) for scoring defense (59.2 ppg), 83rd in field goal percentage defense (39.0) and 111th for 3-point field goal percentage defense (31.1). Notre Dame finished last season ranked 195, 245 and 334 in those respective categories. The Irish currently are fourth, seventh and 12th in the 15-team Atlantic Coast Conference in those categories.

Notre Dame is 48th nationally in steals (8.4), 85th in defensive rebounds (26.1) and 149th in blocked shots (3.8). Last season’s numbers there were 208, 240 and 229.

Five of the nine Irish opponents haven’t broken 60 points. Six have been limited to under 38 percent shooting.

“Defense is where it starts,” said senior guard Jerian Grant. “If we can play this way, we’re going to be in every game.”

At one point late last month, prior to the Nov. 29 home game against Chicago State, Notre Dame ranked first in the ACC for steals. For this program and that category, it seemed the unlikeliest of marriages. But it fits better now because the Irish, currently fourth in the ACC in steals, are better at locking down their guys, better at pressuring the ball, better at recovering by moving their feet.

Just better.

“I am pleasantly surprised,” coach Mike Brey said last week of the defensive numbers. “It’s a nice thing to have that we’ve never, never been in that territory on that end of the floor.”

It has reached a point where Notre Dame has been able to rely on defense to help turn close games. Twice over the first nine contests, against quality opponents who played in the NCAA tournament last spring, the Irish defense has been the big boost at a big time.

Last month against Massachusetts, Notre Dame trailed by 10 midway through the first half. Then the Irish defense kicked in. It started with Jackson’s strip and steal of guard Jabarie Hinds near midcourt.

Jackson raced to the other end of for a layup to ignite a 10-1 run and flip the 10-point deficit into what would become a 17-point Irish lead in a game they would win by 13.

Last week at home against Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Notre Dame trailed by five with 13:54 remaining when sophomore guard Steve Vasturia stepped in and drew a charge. Brey classified it as “one of the biggest plays of the night.” It seemed to be for everyone in green and gold. Notre Dame buckled down, mustered some stops and eventually won in overtime.

The lone loss – to Providence – was a direct result of not being able to adequately defend.

Senior captain Pat Connaughton classified the Irish determination to defend as “playing our brand of basketball.” But there’s the catch – Notre Dame basketball for so many recent seasons was built on what happens on the offensive end of the floor. Doing it on defense? Eh….

“I guess you can call it a reinvented brand of Notre Dame basketball,” Connaughton said. “We’re doing the tough, little things. We’re doing the hard-nosed things that we have to win ballgames when shots aren’t falling.”

Why now?

“That’s the maturity level and the toughness level of this locker room,” Connaughton said.

Case in point surfaced Saturday at home against Fairleigh Dickinson. It may have looked like another overmatched non-conference opponent. Yet it was one that played a style that can frustrate a team from a high-level conference that expects to get out and run up big numbers. The Knights passed and cut and moved and ran defenders through ball screen after ball screen while draining most of the 35-second shot clock. The style forced the Irish to stay true to their defensive principles and trust in their abilities to guard for long possessions. Every possession.

Compounding the potential problem was that not much went right early on the offensive end for Notre Dame, which connected on just six of its first 16 shots.

Historically, Irish teams that aren’t shooting it well or scoring it much have checked out on checking their man. On Saturday, Notre Dame relied on its defense from start to finish in a game it won by 18.

“It’s a big thing,” said Vasturia, the team’s top perimeter defender who always seems to muster a steal or a deflection at just the right time. “We’re struggling a little offensively and we can lean on our defense.

“That’s the way you can win tough games.”

As well as the Irish may have guarded last month and last week, Connaughton has counseled teammates that that’s all in the past. Be better and do it again Tuesday, then do it again but even better Saturday in the ACC opener against Florida State.

“Guarding’s got to be an all-night, every-possession type of thing,” Connaughton said. “We’ve done it pretty well over the beginning of the season, but at the end of the day, once one game is over, it doesn’t matter how well you guarded that game, you’ve got to move on.

“That’s the stuff the guys have taken to hear and are really building upon.”

(574) 235-6153



WHO: No. 25 Notre Dame (8-1) vs. Mount St. Mary’s (2-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 7 p.m. EST (South Bend time).

TICKETS: Available.

TV: None. The game can been seen online at ESPN3 and

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at

WORTH NOTING: A school with an enrollment of 2,300, Mount St. Mary’s is touted as the nation’s “second-oldest Catholic university” and is located in Emmitsburg, Md., just south of the Pennsylvania state line in Frederick County. … A member of the Northeast Conference, Mount St. Mary’s returns two starters off last year’s team that finished 16-17, 9-7 and fourth place in the 10-team league. The Mount opened with five-straight losses but won its last four and five of six to advance to the NCAA tournament for the fourth time in school history. Mount St. Mary’s lost in the first round to Albany. … Byron Ashe scored 16 points off the bench and Gregory Graves added 10 points and nine rebounds to lead the Mountaineers to a 74-65 victory Saturday at Loyola (Md.). They had lost two straight and four of five to open the season. That included losses at Arizona (78-55) and Wake Forest (83-49). … Mount St. Mary’s averages 57.8 points per game. … The Mountaineers were picked in preseason to finish fifth in the NEC. … This caps a stretch of five-straight road games for Mount St. Mary’s, which has played one home game – a loss to Maryland-Eastern Shore. … This is Notre Dame’s eighth home game. The Irish are 7-0 at Purcell Pavilion… Notre Dame leads the all-time series 1-0 with the lone meeting a 78-64 Irish victory on Nov. 23, 2003. … The Irish are 21-0 lifetime against NEC schools, including Saturday’s 75-57 victory over Fairleigh Dickinson. … Mount St. Mary’s is the fourth team Notre Dame has played this season that competed in the 2014 NCAA tournament. The Irish have beaten Massachusetts and Michigan State with a loss to Providence. … Notre Dame is ranked this week in the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since falling out as the No. 21 team in mid-November, 2013 following a home loss to Indiana State. … The Irish have a strength of schedule (SOS) rating of 341, which ranks 15th – last – in the Atlantic Coast Conference. … Notre Dame opens ACC play Saturday at home against Florida State.

WORTH QUOTING: “We can defend when offense isn’t going as nice as we’d like it to go.”

— Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.

Sophomore Demetrius Jackson has been instrumental in Notre Dame's defensive renaissance. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)