Will defensive deficiencies continue for Notre Dame men?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Reality greeted the return of the Notre Dame men's basketball team from its holiday hiatus with the subtlety of a hammer to the head.

Gathered as a group one morning last month after a five-day basketball break, the Irish listened as coach Mike Brey made mention of some notable national numbers.

Offensively, Notre Dame headed toward 2016 again ranked as one of the nation's most efficient outfits. According to kenpom.com, which tracks team offensive and defensive efficiencies based on projections of points scored per 100 possessions, Notre Dame was fourth among the 351 Division I teams for offense.

That was the good.

The bad? Defensively, Notre Dame's efficiency rating was north of 100 points allowed per 100 possessions. At that time, it ranked 167th nationally.

There was little reason for Brey to say more to a group that pulled better than a 3.0 grade-point average during the fall semester. The Irish are basketball and book smart enough to know what that dubious defensive efficiency ranking means. It means that teams mired deep in triple digits are going to struggle during season-defining conference play. It means that for every step a team takes forward, it takes two back by not being good enough to guard.

It means that dreams of playing in the NCAA tournament often remain just that.

“We need to raise it on the defensive end,” said junior guard Demetrius Jackson. “It's attention to detail. It's defense as a whole that we've got to get better at and use our abilities, our length and just be better on that end.”

Jackson was surprised to learn how poorly the adjusted defensive efficiency number was heading into Atlantic Coast Conference play. Something had to change.

Something hasn't.

Since Notre Dame's league opener – Saturday's loss at No. 4 Virginia – its defensive efficiency number slipped to 195th (103.2) in the latest kenpom.com rankings. According to the latest NCAA statistics, Notre Dame (9-4), is 124th in scoring defense (68.4 points), 196th in field goal percentage defense (43.2) and 323rd in 3-point field goal percentage defense (38.6).

Defensively, the Irish are never going to be a lock-down, grind-you-up, suffocating outfit. Even when it went 32-6 and nearly got to its first Final Four in 37 years last season, Notre Dame ranked 147th in scoring defense (65.8), 165th in field goal percentage defense (42.7) and 89th in 3-point field goal percentage defense in the final NCAA stats. In kenpom.com., the Irish were 102nd in adjusted defensive efficiency at 99.3.

Heading into Thursday's game at Boston College (7-7), there's been little defense for the defense. It cost Notre Dame late in losses to Alabama, Indiana and Monmouth. Against Virginia, it rarely was there. Notre Dame couldn't guard much out of man and did less in its 2-3 zone. As much as guarding has been an issue, the Irish also couldn't keep the Cavaliers off the all-important backboard. Virginia secured second and sometimes third chances just by being tougher around the rim. They had 10 offensive rebounds and 38 points in the paint.

That, Brey said this week, cannot continue. Not if the Irish want this season to go where they want it to go. Where they believe it can go. If Notre Dame is to be better defensively, it has to start with not allowing teams to gash its gut.

Within the ACC, Notre Dame is eighth in scoring defense, 12th in field goal percentage defense, 14th in field goal percentage defense and 13th in defensive rebounds (25.6).

“Now that we're in ACC play, it's going to be a lot harder,” senior power forward Zach Auguste said of protecting the paint. “We're going against more athletic guys and we can't get bullied around. We've got to have more heart, more determination, more dedication.

“We've got to be more men.”

Auguste accepts that starts with him. He has to be better than he was Saturday when he grabbed only two rebounds. He also spent a long stretch of the second half on the bench.

“I owe my teammates more; owe my coaches more,” Auguste said. “I've just got to take it like a man and move on.”

Where are the breakdowns occurring even before the other team gets to the backboard? Publicly, the Irish aren't ready to name names or point fingers. Brey declined to go into individual specifics this week when asked on the league coaches' teleconference. But it's not hard to figure out who need to do more.

Brey considers Jackson and classmate Steve Vasturia two of the best defensive guards in the country. What Jackson is asked to do on the defensive end – hound the other team's handler – is nothing short of special. Named a captain this week, Vasturia seldom staggers out of position and stays in a stance while guarding the other team's best perimeter player.

The back end of wing V.J. Beachem and power forwards Auguste and Bonzie Colson combined Saturday for four defensive rebounds in a first half in which the Cavaliers converted 57.7 percent of their shots. The defense broke down against the Cavaliers because, Brey said, “they've got some men. Their front line guys played old.”

Notre Dame's didn't. It has to Thursday, and again Saturday at home against No. 24 Pittsburgh and then Wednesday when Georgia Tech visits…..

“We've got to go out there and play defense as five, gotta play with more heart, just gotta play harder,” Colson said. “It was a huge reality-check.”

Colson insists the league opener did little to crack Notre Dame's confidence. Not after one game. One really bad game. The Irish still believe they can be among the ACC's elite, believe they can defend well enough to win games, believe they can protect the paint, believe they can stay on the backboard for 40 minutes, believe that success will surface. Soon.

“We still have that confidence in ourselves and in each other and that's what's most important,” Colson said. “We know we can bounce back. We can get better.

“We just have to go out there and play with everything we've got.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (9-4 overall; 0-1 ACC) vs. Boston College (7-7; 0-1).

WHERE: Conte Forum (8,606), Chestnut Hill, Mass.

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m.

TV: RSN (Comcast Channel 101). The game also can be seen on in the internet at ESPN3 and WatchND.TV.

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: Both teams opened conference play Saturday with losses to ranked teams. Notre Dame lost at No. 4 Virginia, 77-66, while Boston College lost 81-64, at home to No. 14 Duke. … Former Rutgers and Florida guard Eli Carter, now a graduate transfer, led Boston College with 19 points and five assists. Freshman Jerome Robinson added 15 points, a season-high seven rebounds, four assists and four steals. The Eagles trailed by as many as 21 and allowed 44 second-half points. … Carter has scored double figures in 12 of 13 games this season. He scored 13 points with three assists and three rebounds in 37 minutes as a freshman in a 65-58 Rutgers win over Notre Dame on Jan. 16, 2012. … Prior to the Duke game, the Eagles had won four straight after losing six in a row. … Having finished with a losing season each of the last four years and five of six, Boston College returns one starter off last year’s team that finished 13-19 and 4-14 in 13th place in the ACC. The Eagles were picked this preseason to finish 15th in the 15-team league. … Boston College is 6-3 at home with losses to Duke, UMass-Lowell and Penn State. The Eagles average 2,834 fans at home with no sellouts. … Boston College averages 67.2 points and shoots 43.3 percent from the field. It allows opponents 66.3 points per game. … Notre Dame has won five in a row and nine of 10 in the series dating back to 1999. The Irish lead the all-time series 15-10 and are 4-6 at Conte Forum. Their last road loss was Feb. 2, 2004. Notre Dame set a single-season school record last February with its sixth league road win at Boston College. … Notre Dame looks to avoid opening conference play 0-2 for the first time since 2005-06 as a member of the Big East. The Irish have started 0-2 in league play only twice.… Boston College is one of four repeat opponents for Notre Dame, which opens its home conference schedule Saturday against No. 24 Pittsburgh.

WORTH QUOTING: “I don’t know if I’d say (Notre Dame is) struggling. I think they have the same swagger. They have that confidence; they’ve been there. They’re still trying to adjust to guys in new roles, as a lot of teams are.”

-Boston College coach Jim Christian.