Notre Dame hoops addresses defensive slippage, silence

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

An area usually sharp enough for the No. 10 Notre Dame men’s basketball team to succeed recently lost its edge during three games in seven days.

Sophomore swingman V.J. Beachem heard a definite defensive difference when the Irish had their five-game Atlantic Coast Conference win streak snapped in a 76-72 loss Saturday at Pittsburgh.

It wasn’t that the Panthers were able to get any shot from any spot they wanted in a second half that saw them make 15 of their 22 attempts for a sizzling 68.2 percent. It was that Notre Dame seemingly was OK in a frenzied environ to operate in library mode.

Shhhh…..

“We really didn’t have any voice,” Beachem said. “We’ve got to talk and lock in. It’s not a big concern where we’re playing terribly, but talking more on defense will help us a lot more.”

Maybe switching too many assignments caused a little too much defensive confusion, but there also was too little communication and a whole lot of indifference when Notre Dame needed a stop. It was something the Irish had done – convincingly and consistently – earlier in the week in league wins over North Carolina State and No. 4 Duke.

But Saturday?

“We’ve got to have better communication on the defensive end and dig in on those stops that we need,” said senior captain Pat Connaughton.

When a new month arrived, the Irish (20-3, 8-2 ACC) couldn’t wait for two solid days of … practice.

A saturated schedule the previous week left little free time to fine-tune a defense that has been pretty consistent in league play. Two full days of work heading into Wednesday’s home game against Boston College (9-11, 1-7), offered the chance to go back to the defensive basics of guarding one-on-one in halfcourt and fullcourt, wall-up drills to keep drivers from getting too easily to the rim and mustering back up a whole mess of kills – three consecutive stops.

This week has been about being more attentive to detail after seeing too much slippage in some of those details.

“We’ve got to be able to lock in and challenge shots,” said sophomore guard Steve Vasturia. “It’s staying in front of your man, not being beaten off the dribble that creates mismatches and guys have to help.”

The last full month of the regular season doesn’t demand the Irish reinvent the defensive wheel. Much of that reconstruction was done last spring after Notre Dame seemingly couldn’t stop anyone en route to a 15-17 record and 6-12 struggle in the ACC. The Irish finished 13th in scoring defense (70.6), 13th in field-goal percentage defense (45.1), 15th – last – in 3-point field goal percentage defense (38.5), 12th in blocked shots (3.0) and seventh in steals (5.8).

Those numbers have been better thanks to a greater offseason commitment to guard. Heading into February, the Irish ranked seventh in scoring defense (64.2), seventh in field goal percentage defense (41.4), 14th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (33.9), ninth in blocks (3.8) and sixth in steals (6.7).

Dominant/lockdown/smother numbers? Hardly, but that’s not the way this program has run.

“We win games a certain way and we’ve won them being really efficient offensively,” said coach Mike Brey. “There are some things we can do better and be more committed to (defensively).”

Effort and execution top the to-do list. Neither was there Saturday. Those red flags were raised long before the loss to Pittsburgh ran them up the flag pole.

Notre Dame allowed a season-high 42 points in the first half to North Carolina State, which shot 62.1 percent. Duke scored 39 points the first 20 minutes last week while shooting 50 percent. On Saturday, Pittsburgh opened by hitting its first five shots, then returned from intermission to make seven of its first 10.

When the Irish returned from western Pennsylvania early Saturday evening, Brey’s message to his team before a much-needed day off Sunday centered almost entirely on defense. The Irish had a chance to prove they could be a special team had they fought through their most challenging of conference weeks and won at Pittsburgh. Didn’t happen because of defense.

“We thought we had a chance to get into special territory,” Beachem said. “We let that one slip away, but we have to let that one go and know that when we have another stretch like that, we can finish it.”

Additional chances remain this month for the Irish to prove special worthy, but it again has to start, continue and end with defense.

“That feeling of losing again digs deep,” said Connaughton, “and hits you where you don’t want to be hit.”

Much of what didn’t happen defensively Saturday was a result of the three games in seven days that left the Irish running on fumes mentally and physically. They were exhausted. It’s the same stretch Notre Dame again finds itself in – Boston College on Wednesday, the rematch at Duke on Saturday and a first-ever trip Tuesday to Clemson.

Notre Dame needs to be just as good at the end of the stretch as the start. No letdowns.

“That’s an area of growth that we really need to up our level of mental focus,” Connaughton said. “When it comes down to March, you don’t always get those practice times in the ACC tournament, the NCAA tournament. You have to be able to bounce back and have that mental focus on short practices.”

Short memories also have helped the Irish learn well from their previous two losses. After losing for the first time on Nov. 23 to Providence, Notre Dame ripped off 11 consecutive wins over 47 days. After losing to No. 3 Virginia on Jan. 10, Notre Dame ran off five straight victories over 20 days.

“It really drives everyone on this team because they hate to lose as much as they love to win,” Connaughton said. “That desire not to lose is what’s driven this team.”

A little more defense also has helped.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: No. 10 Notre Dame (20-3 overall, 8-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Boston College (9-11, 1-7).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: Available.

TV: RSN (Comcast Channel 101). The game can also be seen via the internet on ESPN3.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Boston College has lost its last two league games and four of the last five following Saturday’s 64-49 loss at Clemson, which led 27-10 less than six minutes in. … The Eagles are 0-3 at home and 1-4 on the road in ACC play with the win coming against Georgia Tech. … Boston College’s biggest non-league win was a 69-60 victory Dec. 5 over Providence. … Guard Olivier Hanlan leads the Eagles in scoring (16.4) and is sixth in the league. He also is second in the ACC in minutes played (36.8). … Former Irish guard Alex Dragicevich, who transferred to Boston College after two seasons at Notre Dame, has scored 12 points with seven rebounds and three assists in 6.0 minutes over 12 games in his final season. … The Eagles finished 8-24, 4-14 and 14th place in the ACC last year. … Jim Christian is in his first season as head coach after being hired in April following 12 seasons with Ohio, Texas Christian and Kent State, where he went to the postseason eight times. … Boston College ranks 14th in the ACC in scoring offense (64.2), scoring margin (-0.4) and rebounding offense (32.2). It ranks 15th – last – for blocked shots (2.7). … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 13-10, including 9-4 at home. … Notre Dame has won the last three meetings and seven of the last eight since Boston College last won Feb. 24, 2004. … Boston College last won at Notre Dame on Jan. 11, 1997. … The teams meet again Feb. 21 at Conte Forum. … The Irish are 14-1 at home, 4-1 in league play. … Notre Dame returns to action Saturday at No. 4 Duke.

WORTH QUOTING: “They get shots and then they have guys on the floor who understand how to space for one another, when to pass it. They always make the play at the right time. And then they’ve got guys who can finish plays. It’s the play after the play that makes them great. When you stop the action, they can make plays. They have everything.”

-Boston College coach Jim Christian on Notre Dame’s offensive efficiency.