Winning won't solve Notre Dame's rebounding woes

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Winning won’t make the problem go away.

It just makes the remediation process a bit more bearable.

All the good that went in to Notre Dame’s 83-76 double-overtime men’s basketball victory over Georgia Tech Saturday didn’t mask the glaring weakness the 14th-ranked Irish face on the boards. The Yellow Jackets dominated the glass, 46-31, and won the war of offensive boards, 19-5.

It might be a contagious bug that spreads through Purcell Pavilion. Friday night against Florida State, the Irish women seemed reluctant to impose their will toward collecting errant shots. Saturday, it was the men who struggled with the beef fielded by Georgia Tech.

Charles Mitchell (6-foot-8, 269 pounds) and Demarco Cox (6-8, 276) relished every missed shot as an opportunity to gang tackle all those pencil-necks and go after the loose ball. Mitchell had 12 rebounds, evenly divided between offense and defense. Cox had four, but three on the offensive end.

How did Notre Dame plan on dealing with a couple defensive linemen who lost their way to the football field?

“You become an offensive lineman,” said Notre Dame’s Pat Connaughton, who wouldn’t fit in at tackle, guard or center at 6-5 and 218 pounds. Connaughton, however, led the Irish with eight boards to go along with his 10 points.

“The key things for us was to get the rebounds at the key times (the Yellow Jackets outrebounded Notre Dame just 13-10 after regulation),” Connaughton said. “I’m very proud of my team. We got outrebounded, but they’re (one of) the best rebounding teams in the country.

“To get the rebounds we needed at the key times is something that we could build on. We don’t want to ever lose the rebounding battle by 15, but to get the key rebounds, we’ll take that every day.”

Georgia Tech came into the game ranked seventh nationally in rebounding margin (the Irish were 53rd) and 17th in offensive rebounds. Irish coach Mike Brey knew what the challenge would be.

“How ‘bout the bodies on those guys?” Brey said. “You work on block-outs, but it’s hard to simulate those guys pushing on you and banging on you.

“We were finally able to run. When we ran a little in the first half, and we got a couple (defensive) rebounds, that’s almost like, ‘Phew, we don’t have to play against these bodies.’ We got some transition stuff.”

“You have to continue to be physical with them,” said Irish big man Zach Auguste (6-10, 240). “You can’t let them get anything easy. I have great teammates around me that I could rely on to help me dig deep down.

“You have to stay at a physical level. They’re one of the best teams in the country in offensive rebounding. “

Auguste had just four rebounds while dealing with foul trouble most of the game. In the four-guard Irish lineup, Steve Vasturia had six rebounds and Demetrius Jackson five.

“Those are the kinds of (physical) guys we’re going to face in this league,” Vasturia said. “You have to tough it out when it’s not going your way. You’ve gotta fight through it.

“How bad do you want it? You have to go out there with the mentality you’re going to get a rebound; you’re going to get a loose ball. We adjusted at halftime and were able to do it.”

With Atlantic Coast Conference heavyweights North Carolina (Monday) and Virginia (Saturday) looming, Brey has options.

Play a bigger lineup, inserting Austin Torres or Martinas Geben for Vasturia; play zone occasionally, giving the Irish defense a chance to catch its breath; or get the transition game going to take the big bodies out of the equation.

“We were able to rebound better in the last couple minutes of regulation and overtime,” said Brey. “We got (the Georgia Tech big men) moving them around before we drove it (to the basket) in the second half.

“One of the things we’ve looked at, ‘Do we have to play bigger some times?’ I don’t want to give up the ship yet. We can get our guards down there to help us. We did it against Florida State’s (Seminoles led on the boards 37-36) size, better than we did it against these guys and Michigan State (Spartans had a 43-26 advantage).”

Those options need to be considered.

It’s an issue that won’t solve itself.

Especially in the ACC.

Notre Dame teammates Pat Connaughton (24) and Zach Auguste (30) try to grab a rebound from Georgia Tech's Charles Mitchell Saturday during ND's double-overtime win. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)