Notre Dame men work to regain their basketball flow

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When everything is flowing and the five on the floor are operating as one, a certain offensive sequence surfaces eight, nine, 10 times over a course of a practice for the No. 19 Notre Dame men’s basketball team.

The ball doesn’t stick. It moves from side to side with quick precision and purpose. Whether it’s the guards up top, the guys on the wings or the bigs down low, everybody is continuously cutting and moving, moving and cutting. They refuse to revert back to their AAU days and stand still to watch the ball. The end result is usually a high-percentage look – a dump-down into the post for a dunk, a hard basket cut for a layup or a dribble drive and quick kick-out for an open 3-pointer.

When the Irish corner that kind of a flow, it can be beautiful basketball.

That, coach Mike Brey will think to himself, is who we are.

That’s who the Irish were with just over seven minutes remaining in Notre Dame’s second exhibition game eight days ago. Working through a halfcourt set against Caldwell (N.J.) University, a post feed was delivered to sophomore power forward Martinas Geben. Catching the defense standing still, junior captain Demetrius Jackson cut hard to the hoop, gathered a pocket pass from Geben and converted a layup to give the Irish a 27-point lead.

It was a memorable sequence for Brey, who made mention of it afterward. Why? It was the only time over the course of 40 minutes that the Irish executed their offense in that manner with that end result. Save for that hoop, the rest of the night featured too much standing around, too many quick shots and too much of an unwillingness to grind out good halfcourt possessions for a team that has made its chops on being a free-flowing offensive outfit that cuts up the opposition.

Coming out of that exhibition, and in advance of Friday’s season opener against Saint Francis (Pa.), Notre Dame spent much of the last week getting back to the basics. The day after the Caldwell contest, the Irish held a practice entitled simply, “Halfcourt Basketball.”

It was back to basics.

“We’ve just got to be a little more patient,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “We’ve got a lot of talent offensively. That’s pretty clear, but sometimes we’ve gotten away from playing without the ball.

“We’ve got to keep improving on that. It’s definitely there.”

It’s not like the Irish were awful on the offensive end during their two-game exhibition swing. Notre Dame won both contests without breaking so much as a sweat. The Irish averaged 84 points. They shot 49 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from 3 and averaged 18 assists. But it was one specific stat that raised the season’s first red flag – 26 total turnovers in two games for a team that last season averaged 9.4 were way, way too high for anyone’s liking.

Why the inflated number? Chalk some of it up to playing so many guys and combinations, something that will change starting Friday. Also, there were plenty of early-season jitters of guys wanting to do it all and do it now. The Irish sometimes forget to just play.

Slowing it down and letting it all flow will help everything do just that.

“Everybody’s free in this offense (and) Coach has a lot of trust in us,” said sophomore guard Matt Farrell, now expected to be a key guy from the start this season. “When we run our sets and move around, we can get really good shots. That’s something we can do a lot – move defenses around.

“We’ve just got to take our time.”

Brey preached that patience this week. Forget having to rush despite having five fewer seconds on the shot clock. Brey often reminded his team that they get 30 seconds to shoot – not 20. There’s still plenty of time to reverse the ball, make a post feed, even two, and keep moving and cutting. That all makes the other team do what it doesn’t want to do for extended stretches – guard.

“It’s a grind when you get into the halfcourt,” Brey said. “That continues to be something that we have to spend time with. To win games against good teams, eventually you’ve got to grind in the halfcourt.”

There’s also the balancing act for the Irish in that their two best offensive players – guard Demetrius Jackson and power forward Zach Auguste – are at their attacking best in the open floor. When the Irish can get the ball and just go, even on made baskets, Auguste and Jackson are really good.

“We play the way we can play,” Auguste said, “we’ll be fine.”

Learning how to best play that way continues to be a process with a main group that this season features two bigs – Auguste and sophomore Bonzie Colson. At times in the halfcourt, that has a tendency to shrink the floor and close off potential driving lanes.

Each day this week saw the Irish get a little better and more comfortable in the halfcourt with two bigs. Colson better understands when and where he can step away from the basket. The ball gets reversed. Auguste gets a touch in the paint. And if something’s not there early, the Irish know to remain poised.

“We have to make sure we get a great shot every time down the floor,” Jackson said. “Sometimes we have guys who can create for themselves and we rely on that too much.

“We need to get back to playing the way we play.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Demetrius Jackson knows its his job as the point guard to make sure the Irish continue to get good stuff out of their halfcourt offense, when standing still and quick shots dominated the last exhibition.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

MEN’S BASKETBALL

• WHO: No. 19 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. Saint Francis (Pa.) (0-0).

• WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

• WHEN: Friday at 7:30 p.m.

• TICKETS: Plenty available.

• TV: None. The game will be streamed live at WatchND.tv., and 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: A member of the Northeast Conference, Saint Francis returns three starters off last year’s team that finished 16-16, 9-9 and tied for fifth in the league. The Red Flash made its first postseason appearance in 24 years. Saint Francis lost to Bowling Green in the first round of the College Insider Tournament. … Saint Francis finished with seven non-league wins, including victories over Albany, Duquesne and Rutgers. It had won a combined seven non-conference games the previous four years. … Senior guard Greg Brown returns as a three-year captain. He averaged 8.2 points last season. … Senior forward Ronnie Drinnon ranked fifth in the league in rebounding last season at 7.8. … The Red Flash led the Northeast Conference in scoring defense (64.1 ppg.). … Saint Francis was picked this fall to finish eighth in the 10-team league. … Notre Dame has won all 12 previous meetings, the last a 69-52 victory Nov. 24, 2012. … The Irish are 15-0 in season openers under coach Mike Brey and have won 16 straight openers following a loss to Miami (Ohio) to start the 1998-99 season. … Notre Dame opens the season ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 for the third time in the last four seasons. The Irish are one of four Atlantic Coast Conference teams (Duke, North Carolina, Virginia) ranked. … Notre Dame will unveil its 2015 ACC tournament championship banner before the game. … Parking will be at a premium Friday with the football pep rally, hockey game and women’s soccer match all held around the same time as the men’s basketball opener. … Notre Dame returns to action Tuesday at home against Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

• WORTH QUOTING: “Everybody knows how to play here. We’ve shown flashes of it. Now, we’ve got to put it together for 40 minutes.”

-Notre Dame junior guard Steve Vasturia.