Notre Dame basketball finds balance between big, small lineups

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

It devastated defenses when everything mattered most in March.

It remained dormant while familiar faces adjusted to unfamiliar spaces for a good chunk of four games this season.

Getting to see what everyone on the Notre Dame men’s basketball roster could do took precedent during the two exhibition games. The No. 18 Irish then were on such a roll seemingly so early in last week’s opener that they never got around to it. Finally, in Tuesday’s first true test against upset-minded Milwaukee, when Notre Dame needed a really good constructive and destructive offensive rhythm in the second half, it surfaced for the first time since last year's near-miss against Kentucky.

The high screen and roll halfcourt set featuring guard Demetrius Jackson and power forward Zach Auguste went to work. Serious work.

Just over 17 minutes remained in a game that the Irish would win rather comfortably by eight points when coach Mike Brey called for the look that was so lethal last season. Auguste sets a high screen at the top of the key for Jackson, who then deciphers the defense and makes decisions a point guard is expected to make.

If the defense leans on Auguste, Jackson turns the corner, keeps his dribble alive, kicks it into another gear and drives hard to the rim. He did just that later in the half in finishing with a one-hand dunk over 6-foot-10 defender J.J. Panoske. The first time the Irish worked the high ball screen, Auguste rolled hard down the lane, corralled a pass from Jackson and delivered a dunk with his trademark yell (“Ayyyyeeee!”), something he did time and time again late last season.

“Me and ‘Meech’ are trying to be the best in the country at the ball screen,” Auguste said. “We’re going to get even better at it.”

Leaning more on the four-around-one/screen and roll attack for a good chunk of the second half allowed Notre Dame to carve up Milwaukee by shooting a sizzling 61.3 percent from the field and score 47 points. The look puts Jackson in the creator/driver/distributor role that Jerian Grant mastered last year.

Jackson is well on his way to doing more of the same.

“That,” Brey said afterward, “was a Demetrius Jackson field day.”

The game served as a continuing case study in what best works offensively for the Irish, who remain the proverbial work in progress on an end of the floor where everything has historically fallen into place almost from the minute preseason practice commences. Such was last season when Notre Dame rode four-around-one from Day One to a 32-6 record, 14-4 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the school’s first-ever league tournament championship.

This year had to be different with no more Pat Connaughton to operate as the second big. The Irish now start big, but still have the option to play small ball.

As Notre Dame (2-0) prepares to close a brief early-season homestand Saturday against Massachusetts-Lowell (1-1), it will again send out a starting lineup that features bigs Auguste and sophomore Bonzie Colson. Yet the best lineup in terms of spacing and movement and play-making may include only one big.

Offensively, that's when the floor opens. The spacing improves. Jackson is allowed myriad ways to the rim. The defense staggers back on its collective heels — should they double on Auguste or Jackson and leave shooters salivating on the wings? And when the Irish are connecting on shots like they did much of Tuesday, they’re really hard to guard, no matter how well the other team might be flowing on their offensive end.

“We’re really comfortable when all five of us are attacking,” Jackson said of the starting unit. “When we can all be aggressive and all stay together and be a good example for that next group that comes in, we can play at a great level.”

That starting unit featuring two new faces — Colson and junior wing V.J. Beachem — has learned to play together because they understand that they might not always play together. The five struggled to string together early defensive stops against Milwaukee before going to a smaller lineup that features either sophomore guard Matt Farrell or freshman wing Matt Ryan.

Auguste played nine minutes in the first half; Colson logged 11 in the second.

In Tuesday’s first half, the downshift saw the Irish be better defensively, especially Colson who was as active and aggressive as he’s ever been. He almost single-handedly helped flip a six-point deficit into an eight-point halftime lead.

In the second half, he spent more time away from the bucket as the starters delivered a 21-12 burst the first 6:10 as the Auguste-Jackson combination got rolling on screen-and-roll.

“We had great movement,” Beachem said. “Once we got it into 'Z,' we were moving well off of him. With Demetrius making great decisions out there, it’s very tough for teams to stop.”

In many ways, Notre Dame grew up offensively against Milwaukee. There were times when it needed the five starters to do their thing. They did. There were times when it needed to subtract a starting big, go four-around-one and still be efficient. They were, amazingly so. The win was early proof that both ways can work this season.

“That’s what’s special, that we found it,” Colson said. “If we keep the spacing and keep attacking, we’ll be fine. I feel like we’ve got it now.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

MEN’S BASKETBALL

• WHO: No. 18 Notre Dame (2-0) vs. UMass-Lowell (1-1).

• WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

• WHEN: Saturday at 2 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: Freshman Isaac White connected on a runner and a free throw with 1.3 seconds remaining Wednesday to give UMass-Lowell an 87-84 victory over Sacred Heart. Five players scored double figures for the River Hawks, who scored 55 first-half points, finished with 42 points in the paint, 31 points off turnovers and 43 bench points. … The game featured 14 ties and 15 lead changes. … It was the River Hawks’ first home win as a full Division I member. … UMass-Lowell started the process of moving from Division II to Division I on July 1, 2013, the same day that Notre Dame was officially accepted as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference for all sports except football and hockey. … The schools are Hockey East conference colleagues but have never met in basketball. … UMass-Lowell opened Nov. 13 with a 79-57 loss at Northwestern. … It also will play road games against Boston College, Connecticut and Rutgers. … The Hawks finished 6-12 away from home last season. … UMass-Lowell was 12-17 and 6-10, sixth place in the America East last year. … The River Hawks were picked this preseason to finish eighth in the nine-team league. … UMass-Lowell coach Pat Duquette’s brother, Jim, is the former general manager of the New York Mets. His cousin, Dan, is the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. … Notre Dame has more Massachusetts natives on its roster (Zach Auguste, Bonzie Colson) than UMass-Lowell (Mark Cornelius). … The Irish are 58-1 at home in November during coach Mike Brey’s 16 seasons. … Notre Dame returns to action Thanksgiving night against Monmouth in the first round of the AdvoCare Invitational on the grounds of Walt Disney World.

• WORTH QUOTING: “I don’t think our guys are at a point where they take people lightly. They’re very focused.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.