Getting stops critical for Notre Dame men's hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS – If sleeves were standard on college basketball uniforms, Notre Dame junior guard Steve Vasturia would be the first to roll his up and go to work on one end.

Considered the best perimeter defender on a team that includes relentless point guard Demetrius Jackson, Vasturia often draws the assignment of guarding the other’s team’s best offensive player. He usually delivers.

Wichita State guard Ron Baker’s wrists may have just recently stopped aching after Vasturia handcuffed this year’s preseason All-American into a 2-for-10 shooting slump in last year’s NCAA tournament Midwest Regional semifinal. Vasturia was so good that Baker probably had no idea what had hit him.

Vasturia likes to guard. Someone. Anyone. So when the call comes for the Irish to fall into a 2-3 zone defense – often from coach Mike Brey bounding down the sideline in the direction of the other team’s basket waving two fingers on one hand and three on the other – Vasturia is slightly saddened.

Zone’s been good of late to the Irish, but man makes men.

“You want to play man because it’s a challenge,” Vasturia said. “You want to play man because you take that personally. A lot of times, you just go to zone because you’re struggling to guard.

“Then again, if the zone’s working for you, the main goal is to get stops, so you’ve got to do both.”

Entering Saturday’s annual Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis, Notre Dame (7-2) has won three in a row. Two of those – the Dec. 2 victory at Illinois in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and Sunday back at home against Loyola (Ill.) – came as a result of the Irish being really good with their 2-3 zone defense.

Notre Dame seemingly couldn’t guard anyone – even fans in the front row, the ushers or various members of the band – out of man early in either game. Both opponents broke loose for open looks from the 3-point line or down the gut of the Irish defense for easy buckets. At one point late in the first half of the Loyola game after seeing his team again get beat in transition before an uncontested wing 3 in front of the Irish bench fell, Brey waved both hands in the direction of the court as if to say, ‘I’ve seen enough of this. We’re going zone and staying zone.’

Then the Irish did, which delivered a 20-point victory. Afterward, Brey admitted that although some of his players wanted to at least try some man-to-man in the second half, he was going to stick with the 2-3. It delivered.

“Zone’s not something you go to get a stop one or two times,” Brey said. “You’ve got to ride it and see how the other team reacts.”

Mixing defenses again will be part of the plan when Notre Dame meets Indiana (8-3) in the first game of the Crossroads doubleheader at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Irish typically open in man and will throw a quick 2-3 zone look either just before or right after the first television timeout around the 16-minute mark.

It might be one of the only ways to slow the Hoosiers, whose high-octane, score-fast, play-fast, work-fast offense has all the ingredients to give the Irish a host of headaches. In its two losses to date – by a total of three points at the AdvoCare Invitational on the grounds of Disney World over Thanksgiving weekend – Notre Dame struggled in areas that work right into Indiana’s wheelhouse.

Against Monmouth, Notre Dame’s transition defense was but a memory. Unable to get into a good offensive flow and unable to also take care of the ball, the Irish allowed the Hawks to beat them down the floor time and again for layups and easy looks. Three nights later, Alabama gashed the Notre Dame interior so badly that it looked like a pregame layup line. Alabama ultimately connected on the game-winning basket with six seconds remaining against a far-too-soft 2-3 zone.

Zone has been a great tonic for Notre Dame in two of its last three games, but eventually, a really good team (and it well could be Indiana) will do to it what Illinois and Loyola could not — A) make some shots from the perimeter to loosen it up and B) figure out where best to attack the gaps.

When that happens, the Irish will again have to rely on their man-to-man. Once Notre Dame went zone against Illinois and Loyola, it never went back. If the Irish have to Saturday, they better be able to trust it.

“We’ve got to get back to that – taking pride in our defense, just doing those things,” Jackson said. “We’ve got to tighten our man defense up; we’ve got to keep our man in front of us.”

Most of the Irish issues stem from not being to do just that – simply keeping their guy in front of them. The lack of any help defense also was a hindrance. It hurt them against Monmouth; it staggered them against Alabama. It can crush them Saturday.

“Indiana comes at you with a bunch of guys off the dribble,” Brey said. “These guys are coming back down on you really fast.”

It’s just constant. If guard Yogi Ferrell isn’t pushing the pace and pressuring the defense with drives down the lane, he’s kicking to James Blackmon Jr. on the wing, or eyeing where Troy Williams might be floating down the baseline for an easy attempt. Monmouth and Alabama each pushed Notre Dame on its heels defensively; Indiana has the ability to shove teams back even better.

Brey believes Saturday’s game may be an offensive shootout/showcase. It could become two efficient teams getting up and down the court with dizzying efficiency. But the one that gets those key stops at critical times may ultimately decide who walks back on their campus-bound bus winners.

“We’ve got to protect the paint,” said Irish junior wing V.J. Beachem. “Once we let guys get in the lane, that’s really when we start giving up 3s and start giving up everything else.

“To win a tough game on the road, we’re definitely going to have to do it with man.”

Time to dig in and do the dirty work.

(574) 235-6153


Defense helped Steve Vasturia and Notre Dame win earlier this month at Illinois.AP Photo/RICK DANZL

• WHO: Notre Dame (7-2) vs. Indiana (8-3).

• WHAT: Fifth-annual Crossroads Classic.

• WHERE: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (18,165), Indianapolis.

• WHEN: Saturday at 2 p.m.

• TICKETS: None available. The doubleheader is a sellout.

• TV: ESPN2.

• 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: Indiana has won three-straight following a 105-60 victory at home Dec. 12 over McNeese State. James Blackmon Jr., led five Hoosiers in double figures with 24 points. … Indiana has lost neutral-site games against Wake Forest and UNLV (in Maui) and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game at No. 7 Duke. … The Hoosiers lead the Big Ten in scoring (89.0 ppg.), field goal percentage (53.9), 3-point field goal percentage (43.8) and steals (8.3). … Eight Hoosiers average at least 17 minutes per game. … Indiana was ranked as high as No. 13 in the Associated Press poll this season. … The Hoosiers are 1-2 in neutral-site games. … Indiana returns four starters off last year’s team that finished 20-14, 9-9 and tied for seventh in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers lost five of their last six games, including a second-round NCAA tournament matchup against Wichita State. … Indiana has led the Big Ten in scoring each of the last four seasons, but finished ranked last in the league last season in scoring defense (71.4 ppg.) … Notre Dame and Indiana have split its first two Crossroads meetings. The Irish won the last matchup, 79-72, in 2013. … No. 17 Butler (8-1) and No. 9 Purdue (11-0) play in Saturday’s second game. … The annual December doubleheader runs through 2019. … Indiana leads the all-time series with Notre Dame, 48-22 including 15-7 at neutral sites. The Irish have won three of the last four matchups. A win Saturday would give Notre Dame consecutive neutral-site victories over Indiana for the first time since it won three-straight in 1957 (Indianapolis) and 1958 (Lexington, Ky., Indianapolis). … Indiana hosts Kennesaw (Ga.) State on Tuesday. … Notre Dame returns to action Monday at home against Youngstown State (7 p.m.).

• WORTH QUOTING: “This is almost like a road game for us. It would be a great win.”

–Notre Dame junior wing V.J. Beachem.