Can Notre Dame offense get back on track?

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

So smooth for so long, it often has been cause for little concern when it came time to offensive fine-tune and focus.

Heading into Wednesday’s crucial Atlantic Coast Conference home game against No. 7 Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame has myriad defensive questions. Can the Irish slide their feet and guard the Hurricanes better than they did last month in South Florida? Can they be better on the backboard? Can they just compete a little harder than they did that first time around?

While defense has remained a season-long issue, concerns on the other end of the floor have surfaced after Notre Dame wrapped a three-game league road swing with a lethargic, lackluster and overall lost-looking defeat Saturday to Florida State.

Still ranked first in the nation this week according to Kenpom.com in terms of adjusted offensive efficiency, Notre Dame averaged a meager 62.3 points in road games against Georgia Tech (loss), Wake Forest (win) and Florida State (loss). That was nearly 15 points off its league average of 75.2 ppg., which ranks third in the ACC.

Notre Dame (19-9; 10-6 ACC) returns home for the first time since Feb. 13, following a season-low 56 points Saturday in its most lopsided loss (21 points).

“Usually we know we’re going to score with anybody,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “I still think we can do that, and we have that confidence that we can score with any team we play. But when you’re not doing it, it’s tough to win, and that’s been evident the past couple games. We just have to get better.”

Notre Dame has labored to get into a good offensive flow, labored to make shots, labored to string together good possessions of really good offense. Labored to look connected. They have been bad with the ball, bad with making the extra pass. Bad in their collective body language. Just bad.

It has been very un-Irish-like.

Who were those guys Saturday in northern Florida? Even the head coach wondered.

“We just haven’t been very efficient offensively,” Mike Brey said. “That’s what we’re going to need to stay alive in March. Our offensive efficiency will have to be back in gear. That’s who we’ve been as a program; that’s who this team has been.”

In dividing the last six games into two groups of three — wins over No. 8 North Carolina, Clemson and No. 11 Louisville to the left, the three road games to the right, Notre Dame’s averages for shooting percentage (42.8 to 41.2), assists (10.6 to 9.6) and free throws made and attempted (22-26.3 to 11.3-16.6) all are down while turnovers (5.3 to 11) are up.

Brey blamed the struggles on simple slippage that surfaces over a long season. It’s happened often throughout his 15 previous seasons at ND, but usually it arrives sometime in mid-February.

With so much of a daily practice emphasis placed this year on defense, Notre Dame really hadn’t worked much on its overall offensive habits since before Christmas. Prior to this recent stretch, there simply was no reason to work or worry or wonder.

“We,” Brey said, “were flowing.”

The Irish went back to the offensive basics with two days of practice leading into the first of two home games to close the regular season.

“We’ve just got to be sharp in practice and then those habits will carry over to the games,” said guard Demetrius Jackson. “Just having more purposeful movement, just being sharp with the ball, being sharp with our cuts and our screens.”

On Monday, Brey called for one 5-on-0 drill that included making 10 passes — without anyone dribbling — to stress the importance of ball reversal and making the extra pass. It’s the type of drill Brey usually reserves for fall coaching clinics.

“Those are some of the teaching tools as you build your offense here that we’ve got to get back to to remind our guys, 'Keep moving that thing,' ” he said. “What you have to remember is offense is work.

“For us, we’ve got to work it. Maybe we’ve wanted to go too quick.”

Playing too fast on offense has seen Notre Dame slide into unfamiliar statistical territory.

Aside from being consistently able to score, this is a program that has long prided itself on caring for and sharing the ball. But the Irish have been merely average with both this season.

Three times in the previous six seasons, Notre Dame finished among the nation’s Top 15 in assists. Over that span, it never was lower than 48th. Entering the final week of the regular season, Notre Dame currently averages 13.5 assists per game. That ranks 162nd nationally and eighth in the ACC. The Irish are 11th in the league for assists in ACC games at 11.94.

Brey isn’t necessarily bothered by those numbers. This is a different team, with players who are more likely to drive it off the dribble and try to score or draw fouls than make the extra pass. And Jackson still is second in the ACC in assists per game at 4.89.

One number Brey puts a lot of emphasis in is assist/turnover ratio. In the six prior seasons, Notre Dame ranked fourth, 14th, second, sixth, fourth and second in the nation for an average of 5.3. This year, Notre Dame’s current assist/turnover ratio of 1.46 is 23rd nationally.

The Irish have finished with as many or more turnovers than assists in each of their last four games. The ball isn’t being reversed. The defense isn’t being stirred up. Ball screens by power forwards Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson aren’t being held long enough. Jackson and Vasturia are looking to make something else happen too quickly without using said screen.

Two days of practice before getting back in their home gym for a game for the first time in 18 days may be just what the Irish need to get the offense again in gear.

“We’ve got to get back to playing the way we play,” Vasturia said. “We know we can do it; we’ve just go to get back to doing it.”

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (19-9 overall, 10-6 ACC) vs. No. 7 Miami (Fla.) (23-5, 12-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Wednesday at 7 p.m.

TICKETS: A limited number available.

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 twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: Angel Rodriguez scored 17 points with seven assists and Miami overcame a four-point deficit with a 12-0 run Saturday to beat No. 11 Louisville, 73-65, on Senior Day in Coral Gables, Fla. The Hurricanes held the Cardinals scoreless for nearly five minutes to finish their home league schedule 9-0. … Miami is in second place in the ACC, one half game behind No. 8 North Carolina (13-4); Notre Dame is tied with No. 17 Duke for fifth. … Miami sixth man Ja’Quan Newton will not play Wednesday. He is serving a three-game suspension (which carries through the rest of the regular season) for violation of team rules. Newton scored 12 points in 26 minutes against Notre Dame in early February. … Miami last played on the road Feb. 20 at North Carolina, a 96-71 loss. The Hurricanes trailed by as many as 38 points. … Miami has been ranked in the Top 15 of the national polls for a school-record 12-straight weeks. Its previous highest ranking was No. 8. … The Hurricanes have won seven of eight. … Five players scored double figures led by a career-high 18 points off the bench from Anthony Lawrence, Jr., in Miami’s 79-70 victory over Notre Dame on Feb. 3. Sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson’s 17 points led the Irish, who led for all of 41 seconds and trailed by as many as 20 points. Notre Dame shot 25 percent from 3 and finished 4-of-8 from the free throw line. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 10-9, including 5-3 at home. Miami has not won in South Bend since a 63-49 victory Jan. 23, 2000. … Notre Dame can earn one of four double-byes to next week’s ACC Tournament with victories over Miami and Saturday at home against North Carolina State.

WORTH QUOTING: “We can learn from what we didn’t do in Miami, and that was a lot of things. We didn’t defend. We didn’t play that great offensively. Miami’s coming in confident and playing really well, but we feel on our home court, we can compete with anybody.”

— Notre Dame junior guard Steve Vasturia.