More buckets, fewer bricks can shake Notre Dame men's basketball from ACC slide

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Change plays a part in every Notre Dame men’s basketball season.

Names of the players change. Sometimes, so do their uniform numbers. Assistant coaches have changed. So has the conference in which the Irish compete. Every season offers a certain newness.

There had long been one constant. Every year. On every Irish team. No matter who was in uniform or down the sideline as the opponent in whatever league, Notre Dame always stayed steady with its ability to make shots.

Win or lose, the Irish would shoot it well enough and consistently enough to flirt with 80 points, a mark few opponents could reach. The Irish were good at the rim, good in the mid-range and often really good from deep. They moved it well; they shot it better. If defense and rebounding took nights off, and they occasionally did, so be it. The Irish would outscore teams.

It reached a point where the efficiency was taken for granted. Wasn’t that the way everyone around the country played? It was so easy. So effortless.

That’s what makes this recent run so difficult to digest. For one of the few times in coach Mike Brey’s 18 seasons, Notre Dame (13-7; 3-4 ACC) cannot make enough shots to win. At home. On the road. Doesn’t matter. The end result’s the same.

There may be plenty of fight in the Irish, but the way they’ve shot it hasn’t been good enough.

Frustration has festered. With Brey, who often talks after games about how he needs to figure out ways to put his guys in better position to score, then insists during the week that he’s not going to suddenly reinvent everything the Irish do. With the players, who put in the work to be better, then are often left slumped in their seats after games, utterly exhausted after another futile 40 minutes.

Heading into Saturday’s home game against Virginia Tech (14-6; 3-4), it’s been three trying weeks since Notre Dame last won an Atlantic Coast Conference contest. That Jan. 6 evening in Central New York, a happy group of guys who stole a last-second win at Syracuse raced back to the locker room and dialed up teammates Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, back in Indiana nursing injuries, on FaceTime so they all could share in the moment.

It was a good time. A fun time. Notre Dame became the only ACC team to start league play 3-0 for a second straight season. The Irish have since lost four straight — two at home, two on the road — because of their inability to make shots.

Notre Dame ranks 11th in the ACC in league games for scoring at 66.3. It sits 15th — last in the league — in field goal percentage (.381) and 12th in 3-point field goal percentage (.316).

The scoring average is the lowest since 2013-14 when the Irish also averaged 66.3, and the second lowest since Brey arrived in 2000. It’s the lowest field goal percentage mark for any Irish team under Brey, and the second lowest 3-point field goal percentage during his tenure. Only the 2011-12 team, one also riddled by injury and ineffectiveness, was lower (.315). But for all the issues that Irish team worked through, they never lost more than two in a row.

The numbers have been ugly, but the Irish haven’t lost hope.

“That’s not going to stop us,” sophomore John Mooney said of the extended shooting struggles. “We’re going to keep playing. Our shots will start falling in game situations.”

Brey has stressed that without Colson (.526 field goal percentage), the Irish are not as good as they’ve been in making their first shot. That’s why rebounding has been so important. But their second and third and fourth shots often don’t fall.

Notre Dame has not reached 70 points in four of its last five games. In this league, if you can’t get to 70, you’re probably not going to win. Same goes for Saturday against a Virginia Tech team that scored 86 last time out on the road. And lost by eight at Louisville. If the Hokies again run toward 80, the Irish may be left with another near-miss effort.

The Irish field their eighth different starting lineup Saturday in their eighth conference game. Continuity, so key to the offensive success, has been a rumor. This core has sputtered with different guys in different roles. They've struggled to play one certain way. Do they bleed the shot clock? Dump it first into the post? Play faster with more moving and cutting and passing? They have yet to figure out what they do best for sustained periods, but Brey believes the offense has put itself in position to make shots.

The Irish just haven't.

“We’re getting some pretty good looks,” Brey said. “You’ve got to make a few of those to get over the hump and get a win.”

Few other than power forward Martinas Geben (.559) have shot it well in conference play. Subtract Mooney (.462) and power forward Austin Torres (.455) and the other five available Irish each are under 37 percent from the field, under 35 percent from 3.

That’s too many bricks and not enough buckets.

It’s not from a lack of work. On Thursday, junior guard Rex Pflueger settled into a corner spot and immediately connected on one, two, three shots. His shot looked way better than his current percentage of .310 from 3 in league play.

“When it comes down to it,” he said, “we’ve just got to make more shots.”

Saturday would be a good time to see that surface. It would be a nice and needed change.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

WHO: Notre Dame (13-7; 3-4 ACC) vs. Virginia Tech (14-6; 3-4).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 8 p.m.

TICKETS: 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

NOTING: Justin Robinson scored 19 points and Ahmed Hill 18 as Virginia Tech led by as many as 16 to snap a seven-game losing streak to No. 10 North Carolina with an 80-69 victory Monday at Cassell Coliseum. It was the school’s first home appearance on ESPN’s Big Monday. ... Virginia Tech was picked in preseason to finish seventh in the ACC. … The Hokies return four starters off last year’s team that finished 22-11, 10-8 and tied for seventh in the ACC. … Notre Dame leads the all-time series 7-1, including seven straight victories. ... Notre Dame has not played since the Jan. 20 loss at Clemson. … This game starts a league-high three Saturday-Monday conference turnarounds for Notre Dame, which plays Monday at No. 4 Duke. … Irish power forward Martinas Geben is one of three ACC players averaging double figures for points (12.6) and rebounds (10.9) in league play.

QUOTING: “We’ve got a tough one. We’re limited without Matt (Farrell) and Bonzie (Colson) but I think we’ll be really good. We’ve got to keep plugging.”

-Notre Dame junior captain Rex Pflueger