Notes: Crime pays early on defense for Notre Dame hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A glance at the updated Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball statistics checks off the usual boxes for Notre Dame.

• Leading the league in assist/turnover ratio at 2.5? Yep.

• Tops in turnover margin at +7.83? Got it.

• Best free-throw shooting team at 82.6 percent? That will do.

• Nobody better in steals at 8.8 per game? OK.



Yes sir.

An Irish team that has long made its basketball living by being able to move it and pass it and score it (the Irish rank fourth in the league in scoring offense at 85.7 points per game) better than most has branched out early this season.

Notre Dame does lead the league in steals at 8.8 by getting after it.

“That’s very powerful for us,” coach Mike Brey said heading into Tuesday’s home game against Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. “That’s something we’ve never seen around here.”

The Irish ranked 10th in the ACC for steals last season at 5.5 per game. But there’s a whole lot different about this team, especially on that end of the floor. The Irish are better position defenders. They’ve become better help defenders. The communication is better, which leads to a better understanding for guys in how to guard their guys, and help to guard their buddy’s guys.

And the three guys that come off the bench first – T.J. Gibbs, Rex Pflueger and Austin Torres – often get after teams defensively first.

“We’re just better defensively as a whole,” said junior guard Matt Farrell, tied for 10th in the league in steals at 1.7 per game with backcourt mate Steve Vasturia. “”Guys are helping each other left and right.”

And just covering the court.

Notre Dame’s second exhibition earlier this month was against Division III Catholic University, which also visited in 2010. Following this year’s game, Catholic coach Steve Howes mentioned to Brey that the Irish were just longer than the team that went 27-7 in 2010-11.

“We can cover more ground,” said the 6-foot-6 Vasturia. “We’ve done a good job of keeping our hands up in the passing lanes and that’s helped us be successful.”

Defending out on the perimeter has become as contagious as making shots. One guy does it, several more fall in line to follow.

“We get steals and turnovers, it really gets our offense going and flowing,” Farrell said. “We’re going to keep doing it.”

On the edge

Brey talked last week about how the Irish had a chance to make a national move by playing well in their two games at the Legends Classic in New York.

Notre Dame then returned home with wins over Colorado and Northwestern for its first in-season tournament championship since 2010, but the basketball nation barely noticed.

One of only three ACC teams still undefeated, Notre Dame (6-0) was not among a trio of teams – Butler, Florida, South Carolina – that rode their Feast Week successes into the latest Associated Press Top 25. The Irish remained in the “also received votes” group at No. 27.

“I would have almost predicted that,” Brey said of the close, but not close enough ranking. “Maybe they’re just not sold on us.”

Brey prefers remaining off the radar at the start of every season, wanting instead for his team to work toward seeing their name in the national polls. Now he believes they’re close. And deserve to be ranked as long as they continue to take care of their business, i.e. win.

“Anytime you can be ranked is a good thing,” Brey said. “I was hoping we’d sneak in there. Hey, maybe we’ve got more work to do to keep our guys hungry.”

Familiar faces

Iowa’s first visit Tuesday to South Bend since 1990 reunites Farrell with Hawkeyes forward Dom Uhl, his teammate back at Point Pleasant Beach (N.J.) High School and in AAU with the Jersey Shore Warriors.

Farrell and Uhl have traded text messages the last few days.

“It’s going to be fun to play against him,” Farrell said. “He was a force in high school. He’s super-athletic; he’s long.”

The 6-foot-9, 217-pound Uhl is averaging 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds a game.

Farrell also knows Iowa swingman Nicholas Baer. The two and Irish power forward Martinas Geben were teammates on an East Coast All-Stars exhibition team that toured Italy in the summer.

A redshirt sophomore, the 6-7, 205-pound Baer played his first two seasons as a walk-on before earning a scholarship in the offseason. He’s averaging 7.0 points and 4.2 rebounds.

“He’s a workhorse; he’s really talented,” Farrell said. “It was a lot of fun playing with him this summer.”

Rivers to the Ring

Former Notre Dame guard David Rivers will be inducted into the school’s Ring of Honor at halftime of the Jan. 21 game against Syracuse.

A four-year starter and first-round NBA draft pick, Rivers ranks sixth in school history in scoring (2,058) and starts (116), fifth in assists (586), fourth in steals (201) and third in free throws made (583).

Previous men’s ring honorees include Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, Tom Hawkins, Digger Phelps and Troy Murphy, whose name and number banner went up in January.

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Able to field lineups with more length, Notre Dame leads the Atlantic Coast Conference in steals at 8.8 per game heading into the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)