Notre Dame basketball now doing it with defense

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Sudden surges that crack open close contests — coined lightning strikes by the head coach — have typically come from one end of the floor for the No. 19 Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

Good with the ball, able to make shots at high percentages and willing to make the extra passes on seemingly every possession, the Irish are annually a scary-efficient outfit often without peer. Most times, it’s only a matter of time before Notre Dame grabs a game’s momentum with a steady diet of quality offensive possessions.

Though it’s a relatively small sample size, three possessions in Friday’s exhibition opener offered an early clap of thunder indicative that there just might be a storm brewing on the other end of the floor.

Sophomore forward Bonzie Colson overplayed a diagonal passing lane near halfcourt, deflected a would-be crosscourt pass and raced away for a dunk to give the Irish a 49-22 lead. On the next possession, senior captain Zach Auguste stepped away from his usual area around the rim to mirror Colson’s defensive effort. Auguste jumped a passing lane, mustered a deflection and raced in for a dunk of his own to put the Irish up 29. Just over two minutes later, it was junior guard Demetrius Jackson’s turn to display his defensive skills, deflecting a St. Francis (Ill.) pass before, yep, sprinting away for a slam.

Notre Dame forced 18 turnovers and turned those into 25 points.

“We’re just hungry, man,” Colson said of the defensive activity. “Once we bring that energy, everybody wants to do something to spark it. That’s when we play our best ball, when we get deflections and get out in transition. We want to get steals; we want to get dunks.

“That’s who we are.”

Notre Dame’s evolution from a one-trick outfit to a team that could impact games on either end of the floor started last season (see defensive numbers info box). The Irish were committed to guard more consistently throughout the regular season, a mindset that ultimately helped win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Notre Dame busted open the tournament championship against North Carolina by mustering six consecutive stops at one point and limiting the Tar Heels to one field goal in a 7:53 second-half stretch. That defense allowed the Irish offense to do what it does. With 9:58 remaining, Notre Dame trailed 63-54. With 2:05 left, the Irish were up 80-70 after a devastating 26-7 run fueled by the defense.

Notre Dame also had to execute game situations on the defensive end to advance past Northeastern and Butler and in the NCAA tournament.

Replacing graduated seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant in the starting lineup remains a long-term cause for concern. Can anyone operate in the “ultimate creator/closer role” that Grant played to near-perfection last season? Who will compensate for the competitiveness and leadership of Connaughton? Those are questions that will need to be answered as Notre Dame moves forward. Yet plugging Colson and junior V.J. Beachem into the two vacated starting spots has been an upgrade in at least one regard.

This could be as long and as lanky and as athletic as the Irish starting five has been in a long time. Colson, at 6-foot-5 and the 6-8 Beachem both have wingspans well over seven feet, which allows them to contest passing lanes. Connaughton also had a seven-foot wingspan, but worked as an undersized power forward at 6-4. Grant also was 6-4 and led the Irish with 63 steals.

It didn’t take long for coach Mike Brey to notice what impact Beachem and Colson could have on defense.

“The court’s smaller,” he said. “We get more deflections; we block a few more shots when Beachem and Colson are in there. We rebound a little higher.”

The Irish finished their first exhibition with a (+22) rebounding advantage and 10 steals.

“We should be able to guard,” Brey said.

Auguste patrols the paint with a mindset that he needs to worry first, second and third about protecting the rim and dominating the backboard. His offense will come, while he needs to get at least 10 rebounds a night. Junior guard Steve Vasturia often throws the other team’s top perimeter player into jail. There may be no craftier defender in the country. Jackson’s ball pressure again will puzzle the other teams’ point guards.

“That group that starts has got some physicality and some length to it,” Brey said. “They can get deflections, get their hands on things.”

It again all starts with Jackson’s ball pressure. The NCAA erased the five-second, closely-guarded rule from the books this season, but with five seconds shaved off the shot clock — teams get 30 seconds to get something good on that end — St. Francis (Ill.) often started running its sets with 15 or fewer seconds remaining. That leads to panic, rushed shots, contested shots. And steals.

“If I can have good ball pressure, that’s going to make it hard on a lot of teams,” said Jackson, who made four steals in 27 minutes Friday. “We just need to continue to develop in that aspect, continue to trust each other and just continue to play hard and give effort.”

Typically under Brey, the Irish offense has been days and weeks and sometimes months ahead of the defense at this time of year. The Irish often operate as the proverbial work in progress on defense for November and a good chunk of December.

That might not be the case this season. As the Irish prepare to close exhibition play Thursday at home against Caldwell (N.J.) University, it’s the defense that’s clicking like it's midseason, while the offense is still trying to figure out how the pieces best fit.

“That’s really not been the case in our program,” Brey said. “But I can say that now.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Exhibition

• WHO: No. 19 Notre Dame vs. Caldwell (N.J.) University.

• WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

• WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.

• TICKETS: Plenty available.

• TV: None. The game will be streamed live at WatchND.tv.

• RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

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

• WORTH NOTING: A private school affiliated with the Roman Catholic church with an undergraduate enrollment of 938 and located about 20 miles from New York City in suburban New Jersey, Caldwell was 15-13, 11-8 in the NCAA Division II Central Athletic Collegiate Conference last season. … Senior guard Dawan Lighty returns as the leading scorer (15.0 ppg.). Lighty also led the league in 3-point shooting (47.3 percent). … Caldwell averaged 74.5 points and allowed 72.5 last season. The Cougars finished third in the CACC’s North Division. … Mark Corino begins his 28th season as head coach and second as athletic director. … Caldwell was established in 1939 as Caldwell College for Women. It became Caldwell University on July 1, 2014. … The Cougars’ 15-man roster has nobody taller than 6-foot-8. … Caldwell also plays an exhibition Saturday at DePaul. … Notre Dame opened exhibition play Friday with an 87-56 victory over St. Francis (Ill.). … All 12 Irish scholarship players scored. Four players scored double figures led by sophomore forward Bonzie Colson. The Irish finished with 32 points in the paint, 25 points off turnovers, 21 second-chance points and 37 bench points. … Notre Dame opens the regular season Nov. 13 at home against St. Francis (Pa.).

• WORTH QUOTING: “Our defense is great. We can win a lot of games with defense.”

-Notre Dame junior guard Demetrius Jackson.

Defensive doings

Notre Dame has long been known as one of the most efficient offensive outfits in college basketball, but the Irish are quietly becoming more consistent on the defensive end. Defense basically helped the Irish win the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament and first two NCAA tournament games last March.

Following is a comparison how the Irish ranked their first two seasons in the ACC for the major defensive statistical categories. How they fared among the 15 conference teams is listed in parenthesis

2013-14 2014-15

Scoring defense 70.6 (13th) 65.8 (10th)

FG pct. defense 45.1 (13th) 42.7 (10th)

3-point FG defense 38.5 (15th) 32.6 (8th)

Blocked shots 3.0 (12th) 3.6 (10th)

Steals 5.8 (7th) 6.7 (4th)

League record 6-12 (13th) 14-4 (3rd)

Overall record 15-17 32-6