Quicker pace helps Notre Dame get offense in gear
When the late-season losses piled up and watching Notre Dame try to run some semblance of efficient offense became root-canal painful, panic never became part of the process.
Irish coach Mike Brey had been through plenty of similar stretches with former teams. There was little reason to wonder or worry, he stressed late last week, because the Irish always seemed to figure it out.
They figured it out.
Removing the offensive restrictor plate that had often been in place for much of the year, Notre Dame (20-10; 11-7 ACC) raced to 89 points in a 15-point victory over North Carolina State Saturday to close the regular season.
It was the most points the Irish scored in six games and the most they scored in their gym all season. The previous two times out in league losses to Florida State and Miami (Fla.), Notre Dame set season lows for points — 56 and 50.
With the throttle running wide open Saturday, the Irish sprinted to 45 points in the first half, then followed with 44. The pace quickened. The ball moved. The shots fell. Everything flowed.
“We got our mojo back on offense,” said junior guard Demetrius Jackson. “When we play the way we played and can continue to play that way and even better, we can do some great things. It just gets us in that attack mindset.”
Brey came to a crossroads in the two days of practice between the Miami loss and the North Carolina State win. He had grown tired of watching Jackson walk the ball up the floor, grown tired of seeing the ball move around the perimeter with little purpose, grown tired of having the shot clock slide under 10 seconds before the Irish got in gear.
It was time to just go.
For those two days in practice, the Irish operated with a 20-second shot clock, 10 off the usual time. For one five-minute session, Brey even shaved the clock to 18 seconds.
The Irish responded with some of their best ball movement in months. Their 19 assists Saturday were the most since the second conference game in early January.
“It gets us playing downhill,” Brey said. “Maybe we take some semi-bad shots, but I don’t care. We’re going to go; we’re going to roll.”
Quickening the pace produced 73 offensive possessions for the Irish, whose average time of possession was 15 seconds. Both numbers were the best they’ve been in weeks. Over the previous nine games dating back to the Jan. 31 win over Wake Forest, Notre Dame averaged 63.5 possessions per game with an average possession of 19.7 seconds. Its lowest number of possessions was 54 in the loss at Florida State; its slowest time of possession average was 23 seconds in the home win over No. 11 Louisville.
Notre Dame’s 62 field-goal attempts Saturday were the highest in six games.
“We wanted to get our rhythm up, our tempo up and play faster,” said freshman forward Matt Ryan, who adapted to the speed for a career-high 17 points. “If we get more possessions and get more shots up, we’re going to score more. It’s going to get us in a better flow.”
One possession underscored that flow.
Pushing the pace in transition, sophomore guard Matt Farrell dropped a bounce pass to Steve Vasturia, who knocked in a 3-pointer to snap a tie game late in the first half and give the Irish the lead for good.
And that bounce pass? Farrell delivered it backward with two hands and between his legs. Brey loved it.
“There’s an example of how loose we are and how we’re going for it,” Brey said. “That was awesome. We’re ballin’ baby. We’re ballin.’”
Assigning a freshman finishing his first ACC run to guard the league’s leading scorer who has put it on just about everybody this season might have been much to ask.
But after Jackson, Steve Vasturia and a little 2-3 zone didn't work, guard Rex Pflueger got the call Saturday to do something to slow Wolfpack guard Anthony “Cat” Barber. He was ready to answer.
Guard the “Cat Daddy?” Can do.
“I wanted Barber,” said Pflueger, who finished with a career-high four steals in 24 minutes, a chunk of that devoted to guarding Barber. “He seemed like a fun guard. I had a great time guarding him.”
Barber didn’t have as great of a time. He did go for a game-high 29 points, but managed only one basket on Pflueger. Guarding Barber reminded Pflueger of his high school days at Mater Dei in Southern California when he’d have to guard quick, aggressive, talented guys from schools in Los Angeles County.
Eventually, Pflueger could see a little frustration fall into Barber’s game.
“But he’s cool, calm and collected,” Pflueger said. “He knows how to score. Me guarding him wasn’t going to faze him completely, but I had to do the best I could.”
Crouched in a squat near the free throw line after dropping in a 3-pointer late in Saturday’s game, Jackson held the pose for an extra moment as Wolfpack coach Mark Gottfried called time out and the arena went up for grabs.
Jackson’s pull-up 3 pushed the Irish lead to 15 and capped a 2:01 burst that saw him erupt for 10 points — two 3s, two big drives — when the game again looked easy for him.
“You get into a flow and you just get into this feeling and you’re having fun,” Jackson said of the segment. “You’re not thinking about it and really rolling. I had that a lot last year.
“I want to get back into that where I have stretches where I have that flow.”
Little was flowing for Jackson until that moment. He missed all six of his shots in the first half and fell into early foul trouble guarding Barber. But he was determined that the second half would be different.
Jackson took the first shot 17 seconds into the final 20 minutes. It came off a dribble where he went between his legs, then around his back before rising. It fell and helped get him going.
“I knew eventually I would hit one,” he said. “I was going to shoot until I made at least one.”
• Since going 15-17 overall and 6-12 in its first ACC season in 2013-14, Notre Dame is 52-16, 25-11 in the ACC with third- and fifth-place finishes.
• The latest numbers on bracketmatrix.com have Notre Dame included on all 89 NCAA tournament brackets it analyzes with an average seed of 7.15. That would give the Irish the second-highest No. 7 seed behind Dayton. ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi also has Notre Dame as a No. 7 seed opening tournament play in St. Louis against No. 10 Saint Mary’s with the winner likely getting No. 2 seed Xavier.
• Notre Dame closed the regular season with a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 35 and a strength of schedule (SOS) of 32 according to ESPN.com.
• The Irish were 4-4 against teams in the top 25 of the RPI. The wins came against Duke (18), Iowa (23), Louisville (17) and North Carolina (8). The losses were to Indiana (22), twice to Miami (7) and Virginia (2).
• Notre Dame departs Monday afternoon for Washington and the ACC Tournament. As the No. 4 seed, Notre Dame plays Thursday at 2 p.m. (approximately) against an opponent to be determined.
• Picked in preseason to finish fifth in the ACC, Notre Dame finished fifth, but earned the No. 4 tournament seed with Louisville ineligible for postseason.
• Pflueger finished conference play with a ridiculous assist/turnover ratio of 6.25. He had 25 assists to four turnovers in 17 league games, but didn’t qualify to be ranked among the league leaders. Pittsburgh guard James Robinson led the ACC with a 3.6 A/T ratio.
• 2015-16 All-ACC teams
As selected by the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association
• First Team
Brice Johnson, Sr., North Carolina; Malcolm Brogdon, Sr., Virginia; Cat Barber, Jr., NC State; Grayson Allen, Soph., Duke; Jaron Blossomgame, Jr., Clemson
• Second Team
Michael Gbinije, Sr., Syracuse; Sheldon McClellan, Sr., Miami; Demetrius Jackson, Jr., Notre Dame; Brandon Ingram, Fr., Duke; Damion Lee, Sr., Louisville.
• Third Team
Marcus Georges-Hunt, Sr., Georgia Tech; Anthony Gill, Sr., Virginia; Zach Auguste, Sr., Notre Dame; Michael Young, Jr., Pittsburgh; Angel Rodriguez, Sr., Miami.
• Honorable Mention
Justin Jackson, North Carolina; Tonye Jekiri, Miami; Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech; Chinanu Onuaku, Louisville; Marcus Paige, North Carolina; London Perrantes, Virginia; Devin Thomas, Wake Forest.
• All-Freshman Team
Brandon Ingram, Duke; Dwayne Bacon, Florida State; Malik Beasley, Florida State; Malachi Richardson, Syracuse; Bryant Crawford, Wake Forest.
• All-Defensive Team
Malcolm Brogdon, Sr., Virginia; Tonye Jekiri, Sr., Miami; Michael Gbinije, Sr., Syracuse; Landry Nnoko, Sr., Clemson; Chinanu Onuaku, So., Louisville.
• Player of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon
• Freshman of the Year: Brandon Ingram, Duke
• Coach of the Year: Jim Larrañaga, Miami
• Defensive Player of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon
• Most Improved: Jaron Blossomgame
• Sixth Man: Isaiah Hicks, Jr., North Carolina