Lesar: Notre Dame proves size really doesn't matter in basketball

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — That… dang… clock… seemed… like… it… would… never… get.. to… 0:00.

This was Florida State. One of the most explosive college basketball teams in the country. Two 7-footers, three others at least 6-9.

How precarious was Notre Dame’s lead? Nine at halftime. Seventeen with 15 minutes to play. Surely the Seminoles were good for a run. The Irish valued each possession like gold. Nothing slipped away. Never got closer than 12.

Contrary to popular belief, at least Saturday night, size didn’t matter: Notre Dame 84, Florida State 72.

Chalk a big one up to a plan born out of panic.

Losing can be the catalyst of invention. Case in point: Coach Mike Brey’s move to a “small” lineup during the second half of the fourth loss in a row – a week ago at North Carolina.

Martin Geben, Notre Dame’s 6-10 post, found his way to the bench in favor of a rotation between 6-6 Rex Pflueger and 6-3 T.J. Gibbs.

Guess what? Brey liked what he saw.

Put this new strategy right up there with the “burn” offense of several years ago. Find a tactic that will fit the personnel. Then… just win, baby.

“When you lose four in a row, you start evaluating everything,” Irish associate head coach Rod Balanis said of the simple decision-making process. “We’ve had a great season, (but) we’ve had a tough two weeks.

“We have guys who can make great decisions; understand when to cut, how to move.

“One thing we noticed when we lost to Duke (Jan. 30), especially in the second half, it got (6-5 post Bonzie Colson) in different areas to attack. We felt that was the way to go.

“It’s helped Matt Farrell a lot because you’ve got an extra ballhandler, especially when Gibbs is out there. We’ve worked with T.J. on cutting more.”

Notre Dame’s offense ran the Seminoles ragged. Jonathan Isaac, a 6-10 freshman considered a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft, destroyed the Irish in the first meeting (23 points, 10 rebounds). Out of his comfort zone and out of gas, he collected four points and six boards Saturday.

Brey, the ultimate chess master, saw the checkmate happen midway through the second half when the Seminoles pulled their bigs off the floor, adjusting to Notre Dame’s lineup. Colson’s career night – 33 points, 13 rebounds – and a 41-34 rebounding edge gave Brey all the validation he needed.

The Irish had won the battle of the wills.

“They had to adjust to us and play small,” Brey said. “Playing small longer and being married to it has been good for us. Our small guys are tough dudes. Being big may be overrated.

“You look and go, ‘OK, they’re adjusting a little bit. Maybe they haven’t had to play this way.’ You think maybe you have an advantage when you see that.”

The Irish coach said, pre-game, he never gave abandoning the small approach a second thought, despite the Florida State size.

“If we’re going to go small against (North) Carolina’s front line and ride it out and see what happens, we’re probably going to stay with it,” said Brey. “We’re putting 80 (points) on the board now. We’re in an offensive rhythm. That’s what’s important to me.”

“We’ve got great guards and we’re able to space people out,” said Pflueger. “If they’re going to play with a bigger lineup, it gives us driving opportunities. We’ve got a bunch of shooters; great drivers.

“That forces (the defense) to either stay that way and guard us, or downshift (in size), which we’re comfortable with.”

Purcell Pavilion was dripping with energy, especially in the second half. Just as the tide threatened to turn with the Irish lead at 12 with a lifetime (16:54) to play, Pflueger committed a hard foul on Xavier Rathan-Mayes in front of a delirious Irish student section. He went to step over Rathan-Mayes and was pushed by 7-1, 304-pound Michael Ojo.

Brey came sprinting off the bench and others came in to keep the situation from escalating.

“It’s basketball,” said Pflueger, who gave up 102 pounds to Ojo. “I know (Ojo’s) not going to throw any punches. I was just trying to get out (of the situation). It turned out to be a little scuffle, nothing more.

“That play fueled us; got our energy back up.”

“Thank God Ojo is a peaceful man,” said Brey. “I’m running out there and I’m going, ‘I don’t know why I’m running out there.’ I don’t think there was much there, just good, competitive stuff. Rex finds himself in those positions because he plays so darn hard.”

The Leprechaun Legion kept the joint hopping. Its tomahawk chop chant with 2 minutes left ignited the crowd. That was followed by an “over-rated” chant.

Turned out to be quite an interesting game.

Good thing that dang clock wasn’t in any hurry to hit 0:00.

Notre Dame guard Matt Farrell celebrates Saturday's win over No. 14 Florida State. (AP Photo/Robert Franklin)