Criticism now constructive, not destructive, for Irish hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When a defensive assignment disintegrates or a rotation doesn’t arrive in time, fingers can be pointed.

When the basketball is thrown into the first row or a perfect drop pass is fumbled, words can be exchanged.

When everything should be going right but nothing is, a harsh word or icy stare can make it all seem so much worse. So personal.

But when confronted this season by a critical word or cross look from a teammate, the No. 13 Notre Dame men’s basketball team better understands how to accept it and move past it instead of letting everything fester.

Last season, it was way too personal. Not now.

“One of the best things about this team is that we can say some things that might be a little hard, but guys don’t get mad about it,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton. “They take it and they think about it and they know that it’s just what we’re trying to do to make this team better.”

Criticism from old and young guys and coaches, was voiced in the home locker room seven days ago during halftime of an Atlantic Coast Conference game against Georgia Tech. Needing to get off to a good start getting back in league play after a 21-day break, the Irish fell into an 11-point hole. It was their largest deficit this season. They couldn’t take care of the ball, couldn’t get a rebound, and couldn’t play the way a ranked team should play against an inferior opponent.

At halftime of a game that Notre Dame won in double overtime, the locker room was not a very pleasant place. But was it? The more aggravation that spilled out, the more determined the Irish were to be better.

Any negative this season is taken more in a positive way. It’s no longer personal. It’s business.

“This groups is kind of more mature to call each other out,” said coach Mike Brey. “They are more secure with each other when they’re confronted by each other.”

Summer psych sessions

Much of what Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0 ACC) has done to date heading into Saturday’s sold-out home game against No. 3 Virginia (14-0, 2-0) has roots in the offseason. Coming off last season’s 15-17 showing, the Irish knew they had to be better on defense. All the six returning players did during spring workouts was three-on-three halfcourt ball screen drills designed to be better on defense. It’s worked.

Same goes for being a more mature team. Notre Dame spent three days during summer and another two in the fall with Dr. Joseph Carr, a sports psychologist and performance coach who has counseled college and pro teams. Much of the work centered on building a better trust when adversity arrived, a bond that seldom was strong last season.

When one player is critical of another, the player being called out needed to have a better understanding of why something is being said, not necessarily what is said.

“I don’t know if there was a good understanding of why it was said last year,” said Connaughton. “People just didn’t quite get that being critical was for a team benefit. They thought it was a selfish benefit.

“But this year, we set it straight from the beginning – anything that’s said on the floor stays on the floor.”

Dr. Carr’s sessions included role playing for the Irish to better accept criticism. It helped outline the difference between good criticism and bad criticism.

Bad criticism would be if a player would be critical of a teammate for not hustling back on defense after a turnover, and then having that teammate lash out by calling out the player for doing something wrong a handful of plays ago.

An example of good criticism would be for the player being admonished to admit he was wrong, and insist he’d try to be better the next time down the floor.

Last season, it was too much bad criticism and not enough good criticism that helped doom the Irish, who just couldn’t find a working balance. Every harsh word was taken as more of an attack.

Now when a player feels he’s being criticized, the Irish have a saying – put on a raincoat. In other words, let any words roll off your back and keep moving. Keep working. Keep competing. Keep fighting for the team.

“We just had to grow up and be older,'' said junior forward Austin Burgett. “If you don’t like what someone says, just listen, take it and move on instead of arguing. Compared to last year, we’re so much further along.

“Guys have really grown up.”

Much of that stems from the leadership of Connaughton and fellow senior Jerian Grant. Connaughton saw the problems that plagued the players and the ill will that seemingly lingered for hours and days and made for often uncomfortable confines in the locker room. He took those concerns to Brey, and has worked long and hard and determined to change that culture this season.

“The older guys have set the tone, especially being able to jump on guys and guys being able to listen and respond,” Burgett said. “Last year, it would go in one ear and out the other and guys would be like, ‘I’m going to do what I think is best or whatever the (heck) my dad is yelling at me in the stands.

“This year, it’s really straight-forward like, ‘Yo, this guy knows what he’s been talking about and you should listen.’”

Class rank doesn’t matter when someone wants a say. It could be a senior who’s been around the college basketball block, or a freshman still figuring out what it takes to play at the elite level. If someone has something to say to somebody else, they’re free to say it.

Junior power forward Zach Auguste didn’t always feel that way. In previous seasons when he’d feel frustration fester by what was or was not happening with his game, he didn’t feel like he could express his emotions. Keeping those feelings in did him no good.

Now he speaks.

“Everybody has a voice on this team,” Auguste said. “We love to hear one another and we can take criticism.”

A closer group

The offseason sessions also were designed to tighten bonds between players so that they would have more in common than just the 90 minutes of time together every day at practice.

Another exercise saw Dr. Carr pair off players in twos. Burgett was matched with fellow Avon, Ind., native Matt Gregory, a freshman forward. Each player asked his partner to get in a stance that he felt represented the way that player felt about the other last season. It was easy for Gregory, who was a senior in high school this time last winter. He stood across from Burgett and covered his eyes with hands. The message was clear – Gregory had no idea who Burgett was, no clue about his likes and dislikes or what made him tick.

Following the August foreign tour of Italy, Dr. Carr returned with the same exercise. Burgett and Gregory again paired up. This time, Gregory opened his palms to the ceiling and placed one foot forward toward Burgett.

The message was that Gregory wants to keep learning about Burgett and wants to keep moving forward with him. The open arms symbolized a readiness and willingness to take criticism.

“When you’re winning, everything is good,” Auguste said. “But win or lose, this team is going to stick together.”

That was evident earlier this week.

Tuesday – the day after Notre Dame won at North Carolina for the first time in school history – was the players’ off day. All that was required was a brief weight-room session. After that, they were free the rest of the day.

When the workout ended, the Irish returned to the locker room. In the past, players would hang out long enough to grab a shower and check their phones before gathering their stuff and going their own way until the next day.

On this afternoon, everyone just chilled. Someone grabbed a basketball and headed out the door to the main floor. Another player followed. Then another. Eventually, the whole team was on the floor dribbling, shooting, laughing, bonding. Music was provided, likely by Grant. One hour turned into two, and everybody remained.

Nobody left. Nobody wanted to.

“This is a first for the program,” Auguste said. “We just love being around each other.”

That extended off the floor that night. It was Connaughton’s 22nd birthday and he had plans to celebrate at a high-end Japanese restaurant. But several Irish had not yet received their per diem checks, which covers their meals during winter break when the dining halls are closed. So going big for Connaughton’s birthday dinner was a dilemma.

The players all decided instead to hit up a restaurant for its half-price wing night. That way, everyone could afford it. And go. The next night, they gathered at Connaughton’s off-campus residence to watch last year’s games against Virginia.

“All 13 guys hang out off the floor more than we did last year,” Connaughton said. “Overall, it’s just a different chemistry that this team has.

“It’s better.”

Notre Dame opened ACC play Saturday at home against Florida State.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

WHO: No. 13 Notre Dame (15-1 overall, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 3 Virginia (14-0, 2-0).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 6 p.m.

TICKETS: None available. The game is a sellout.


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: Off to its best start since 1980-81, Virginia limited North Carolina State to nine baskets and 20 points in the second half of Wednesday’s 61-51 victory at home. … The Cavaliers have been ranked in the top 10 all nine weeks of the regular season, their longest stretch since 1982-83. … Virginia leads the ACC in eight statistical categories including field goal percentage defense (33.7), defensive rebounds (28.6), scoring defense (50.6) and free throw percentage (74.1). … The Cavaliers rank in the top 10 nationally in nine categories and are one of three undefeated teams (Kentucky, Duke), remaining. …Three starters return off last season’s team that finished 30-7 and 16-2 and first place in the ACC. … The Cavaliers were picked in preseason to finish fourth in the league. … Nine players average at least 11.2 minutes a game. … Virginia owns a (+12.7) overall rebound margin this season while Notre Dame owns a (-11.0) rebounding margin in three league games. …. Virginia has won the last seven games against Notre Dame and leads the all-time series 7-1, including both meetings in South Bend. The only Irish victory was Feb. 22, 1981 over then-No. 1 Virginia, 57-56, in Rosemont, Ill. … Virginia beat Notre Dame twice last season by an average of 18 points. … This is the lone regular-season meeting. … Notre Dame coach Mike Brey is 0-3 lifetime against Virginia coach Tony Bennett with an average margin of defeat of 18.6 points. … Notre Dame and Wisconsin are the only teams in the country with as many as 15 wins. … ND is 12-0 at home with an average margin of victory of 26.5 points. … Notre Dame has won its last five home games and seven of eight against Top 10 teams. … Notre Dame returns to action Wednesday at Georgia Tech.

WORTH QUOTING: “It’s going to be electric. It’s going to be crazy. I can’t wait. We’re ready to go.”

-Notre Dame junior power forward Zach Auguste on playing Virginia in front of Saturday’s sellout crowd.