Downsized Notre Dame in hoops overdrive

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Scripts have been flipped and often entirely scrapped for opponents nearly halfway through Atlantic Coast Conference play for the No. 8 Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

Back before the Irish (19-2, 7-1 ACC) entertained any idea of sitting near the top of the league standings as February neared, before they had any thought of rocketing into a Top 10 national ranking after last season’s lost season, before they would go on a current run of 65 days with one loss, there was concern over one aspect sure to surface early and often in league play.

How would Notre Dame handle the length and athleticism of teams that could run a host of big bodies its way? After working through its first ACC season with two bigs in the starting lineup, the Irish planned to field a top five that featured only one player over 6-foot-6 (6-10 power forward Zach Auguste).

Going all the way back to the August foreign tour of Italy, size has mattered little to the Irish. Even when Notre Dame was winning its four exhibitions overseas by an average of 44 points, coach Mike Brey seldom paired two bigs at the same time. He didn’t do it then, didn’t do it in preseason practice, and didn’t do it in non-league games.

Many believed that was going to change when ACC play arrived. Had to if the Irish were to survive.

As the Notre Dame conference schedule hits its halfway point with Wednesday’s sold-out showdown against No. 4 Duke (17-2, 4-2), it’s not about how the Irish will adjust to what this team or that team does, it’s about how the other team will counter.

The next time an ACC team lasts an entire 40 minutes operating with two traditional bigs on the floor together against Notre Dame will be the first. As games have gone deeper into second halves, league teams have found it difficult to deal with a perimeter-heavy lineup that has the Irish playing with four and sometimes five guards.

Countering with size hasn’t cut it.

“We throw surprises at teams,” said fifth-year senior guard Jerian Grant. “We feel like if they keep their same lineup in and go big, we’ll get them. But when they try to downgrade to us, that’s when we feel like we really have them.”

The Irish noticed that at the start of league play in early December against Florida State. The Seminoles’ rotation of three 7-footers was rendered useless against a lineup that features 6-5 senior Pat Connaughton as the second big. Asking the opponent’s second big man to step away from his comfort zone – in the lane and around the rim – to chase a guard around the perimeter is something teams just can’t do.

And on Jan. 3, when Georgia Tech jumbled its lineup in an attempt to better match with Notre Dame – Brey terms it “downshifting” – the 15-year Irish coach knew he was on to something with smaller ball.

“Teams we play against, they just don’t get a lot of reps that way,” Brey said. “Maybe it throws them out of rhythm a little bit. They’re not accustom to playing that way where they’re downshifting and playing wing as their second big.”

Sometimes league teams cannot adjust in either half. During the Jan. 17 home win over Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame worked for the final 15 minutes of the second half with a five-guard lineup that handcuffed the Hurricanes. Miami tried to counter with 7-footer Tonye Jekiri, but he couldn’t keep up on either end. Defensively, he had trouble keeping track of 6-8 V.J. Beachem, one of the league’s top 3-point shooters. Offensively, Jekiri was sometimes guarded by Connaughton, or even the 6-1 Demetrius Jackson. Yet being the focal point of the offense wasn’t his game. Jekiri was dared to shoot it, and struggled to make the easiest of shots. Coach Jim Larranaga eventually subbed him out for another guard.

Didn’t work.

Larranaga also started a different way, going with 6-6 swingman Davon Reed over the 6-8 Omar Sherman.

Didn’t work.

Odds that Duke will go small Wednesday are really small. Freshman center Jahlil Okafor is a lock for league rookie of the year honors. He’s a serious threat for league and national player of the year honors. He’ll be in the game as long as there’s still time on the clock. Duke’s second big, 6-9 Amile Jefferson teamed with Okafor on the back line when the Blue Devils went to a 2-3 zone look Sunday against St. John’s. But against perimeter-heavy Notre Dame, Jefferson might spend more time than usual as a spectator.

Duke might stay with size and go zone, which may not work if the Irish are hitting shots. Surrounding Okafor with four guards for extended stretches might be what the Irish want. When other teams downshift, the Irish are able to kick it into overdrive.

“We do this all the time,” Grant said. “We’re used to it and when teams do it, they’re not used to it.”

Just when league teams think they’ve got it figured out, the Irish add another rotation wrinkle.

When Auguste missed the Jan. 14 game at Georgia Tech for an academic matter, Brey went with 6-5 freshman Bonzie Colson and his 7-foot wingspan in the post.

There have been times in every conference game where the Irish see looks of confusion from guys on the team. It’s almost as if they’re saying to themselves, and to each other, ‘OK, how are we going to guard this?’

“They know they have to make the adjustment,” said sophomore guard Steve Vasturia. “You can see them backing off a little bit and it’s obviously an advantage for us.

“That’s what makes our offense special.”

Notre Dame players celebrate Sunday's overtime victory at North Carolina State.AP Photo/KARL B DEBLAKER

WHO: No. 8 Notre Dame (19-2 overall, 7-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. No. 4 Duke (17-2, 4-2).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

TICKETS: None available. The game is sold-out.


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: Freshman guard Tyus Jones tied his career high with 22 points, including 10-of-10 from the free throw line, and fellow freshman Jahlil Okafor added 17 points and 10 rebounds to lead Duke to a 77-68 victory Sunday at St. John’s. …Mike Krzyzewski became the first coach in Division I to win 1,000 career games. … Notre Dame coach Mike Brey spent eight seasons at Duke as an assistant to Krzyzewski. … Duke returns two starters off last year’s team that finished 26-9, 13-5 and third place in the ACC. … Picked in preseason to win the ACC, the Blue Devils opened this season with 14-straight wins and have been ranked as high as No. 2. … Currently in fourth place in the league, Duke averages 81.6 points and allows 63.9. … Seven players average at least 16.8 minutes. … Okafor (67.1 percent) and Notre Dame power forward Zach Auguste (63.3) rank first and second in the ACC for field goal percentage. … This is the second of three-straight road games for Duke, which plays Saturday at No. 2 Virginia. The Blue Devils are 4-1 on the road, 2-1 in the ACC with the lone loss to North Carolina State. Duke also has lost at home to Miami (Fla.). … Notre Dame (81.9 ppg.) and Duke (81.6) rank first and second in the league for scoring offense… The Irish (52.1 percent) and Blue Devils (49.9) also rank first and second in the ACC for field goal percentage. … Notre Dame is ranked sixth in the league in scoring defense (63.2) while Duke is 10th (63.9). … Duke leads the all-time series 16-3, including 4-3 in South Bend. … Eric Atkins scored a team-high 19 points and Pat Connaughton added 16 as Notre Dame won its first-ever ACC game against Duke, 79-77, on Jan. 4, 2014. … Prior to that contest, Duke had won the previous 11 matchups. … The Irish have never beaten the Blue Devils two in a row. … These teams meet again in 10 days – Feb. 7 - in Cameron Indoor Stadium. … The Irish have won 14 of their last 15 games. … This is third sellout (Michigan State, Virginia) for Notre Dame, which is 13-1 at home, 3-1 in ACC play. … Notre Dame’s stretch of three games in seven days ends Saturday at Pittsburgh.

WORTH QUOTING: “Everybody’s looking for tickets. I don’t think there’s too many going around. You get a home game against Duke, people are going to be excited, especially the way we’ve been playing. People should be amped for it.”

-Notre Dame sophomore guard Steve Vasturia.