Noie: Notre Dame basketball more determined defensively, but how will we know?

Tom Noie
ND Insider

Tunnel too deeply down the analytics rabbit hole for evidence that the Notre Dame men’s basketball team really is more committed to the defensive end and it’s dizzying. 

Remember when the only defensive numbers that mattered were shooting percentages and rebounds? Maybe steals and turnovers forced? Those days, along with the two-handed set shot, Chuck Taylor shoes and belts to hold up the uniform shorts, are long gone. 

You now can dive into the final stats for any games — even embarrassingly one-sided exhibitions — and study a number of different numbers to gauge defensive efficiency or lack thereof. Want to check guard Prentiss Hubb’s defensive rating, which measures the points a player allowed per 100 possessions? It’s there. Or guard Dane Goodwin’s stop percentage? Find it. Power forward Elijah Taylor’s rebound rate? Here you go. Then there’s offensive rebound rate, defense rebounding rate, block percentage and fouls committed. 

The Notre Dame men's basketball team remains the proverbial work in progress on the defensive end, but how will we know if the Irish are improved?

Head spinning yet? What do all the numbers mean? Something? Nothing? 

Step into Purcell Pavilion and squint really hard toward the end of the Irish bench and you still can see former power forward Austin Torres imploring the Irish to get one more stop so it could earn the coveted “kill” – three consecutive stops. That was the metric most commonly used during the program’s run to consecutive NCAA Tournament Elite Eights in 2015 and 2016. 

Searching for something to show some sort of progress on the defensive end last season, Notre Dame adopted the “stop/score.” Anytime the Irish stopped their opponent from scoring, then went down on the other end and scored, well, that was charted. 

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Following a 26-point victory at Pittsburgh in late January, Mike Brey was quick to point out that the Irish had registered 24 stop/scores. For the rest of that pandemic year, that became the metric most used. During games. After games, In practices. 

The favorite flavor of February, stop-score soon went bland when the Irish lost more than they won. In the end, they still weren’t very good defensively. 

What metric will Notre Dame lean on this year? The kill? The stop/score? Both? Neither? Notre Dame’s season will flourish or fail based a whole lot on how it plays defensively, so something needs to be the standard. 

Or does it? 

“We have not done as much with kills simply because we’ve spent more time with our breakdown drills on positioning and communication and where we want to send the ball,” Brey said after he watched his team win their first exhibition by 50 points. “We have a whole new language that started in June.” 

So it’s out with the old (kills, stop/scores) and in the a new verbiage, now part of every Irish practice, and often right from the jump. When the Irish reconvened at Rolfs Hall on Monday in preparation for Friday’s exhibition finale (St. Norbert’s, 7 p.m.), defensive drills remained atop of the practice plan. 

So did a new kind of hoops vocabulary. 

“Ice.” 

“Blue” 

“Corral.” 

To ice or blue the ball handler means to force that player toward the baseline as a defending big (in Notre Dame’s case, either power forwards Paul Atkinson Jr., or Nate Laszewski) zones to the baseline. The goal is to not let the ball leak into the middle of the floor. Force it outside – further from the basket and from the other four offensive players. 

Corral has many of the same principles — contain the ball handler away from the middle. You watch Notre Dame practice, you watch Notre Dame play, you’re likely going to hear those three terms a lot. 

There are more. 

“Black” 

“Weak” 

“Nash” 

“80/20” 

“Stick” 

What are those definitions? That’s still for Irish ears only, but the principles revolve around the same premise of keeping opposing teams out of the middle of the floor, limiting open looks and not giving up uncontested 3s. 

“I think we do a better job,” Brey said. 

Those may as well be the cardinal sins of defense, sins often committed by the Irish last season. Notre Dame finished 14th in the 15-team ACC in scoring defense (74.3 ppg.), ninth in field goal percentage defense (.443), 12th in 3-point field goal percentage defense (.366), 13th in rebounding defense (36.6 per game) and 15th in steals (4.27). 

The Irish weren’t just bad. They were brutally bad. Indifferent. Non-competitive at best, even on a good night. 

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It’s been about all that and about finishing defensive possessions — the last 10, five seconds of the shot clock — with equal intensity and effort. It’s about, in the words of associate head coach Anthony Solomon, who’s in charge of the defense, “handling your business.” 

As Solomon analyzed film of the Irish from last season, his most common response on any given defensive possession was, “What are you doing?” 

Defensive rebounding remains an ongoing/ever-evolving issue for the Notre Dame men's basketball team.

Not even Solomon could figure that out. 

Now when the Irish do something right defensively, Solomon often remains unmoved. No “good jobs” or “attaboys.” Doing it once or twice or three times isn’t acceptable. Do it for the course of 40 minutes. Then do it all again. That’s what’s going to win the Irish more games. That’s what’s going to keep the Irish in more games. That’s what’s going to help March matter. Maybe. 

Through 10 summer practices and two dozen now heading into Friday, it’s often been first and second and third about defense. The offense will be there — just as it was when Notre Dame placed six in double figures and scored 87 in the exhibition opener — but what’s it going to look like and sound like on defense? 

“We’ve been grinding them up with these habits,” Brey said. 

Habits that, at least for one night, carried onto the court for an actual game in the exhibition opener. Notre Dame still struggles to defensive rebound but for the most part, the first time out was a solid step. Time to take another one against a St. Norbert’s (Wis.) team that likely will be more of a challenge than Nazareth (N.Y.) College. 

It's not about who the Irish are playing so much as how they’re playing, especially on defense. 

“We stuck to our defensive principles,” Atkinson said of last week’s defensive effort. “We played a lot of zone. We did that pretty well. We’ve got to work on rebounding through that.” 

Ignore all the metrics and take another step. The process never can end. Not for this group. Not this season. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI

MEN’S BASKETBALL 

WHO: Notre Dame vs. St. Norbert’s (Wis.) College (exhibition) 

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149) 

WHEN: Friday at 7 p.m. 

TICKETS: Plenty available. Masks are mandatory for all fans attending Notre Dame men’s and women’s basketball games this season. 

TV: None. 

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM). 

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com/tnoieNDI 

NOTING: This is the final preseason exhibition for Notre Dame, which opened Oct. 29 with an 87-37 victory over Nazareth (N.Y.) College. … The Irish begin the regular season Nov. 13 at home against Cal State Northridge. … St. Norbert’s is a Division III school with an enrollment of 2,100 located in DePere, Wisc., on the Fox River just south of Green Bay. Twenty of the 22 players on the roster are Wisconsin natives. … The Green Knights were picked in preseason to finish second in the 14-team Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference. They also received two first-place votes. … This is the first year in the NACC for St. Norbert’s, which did not compete in 2020-21 because of COVID-19. … St. Norbert’s finished 23-5 overall, 17-1 and first place in the nine-team Midwest Conference in 2019-20. It led the league in defense (66.7 ppg.) and scoring margin (+13.4) and was third in scoring (80.1 ppg). … St. Norbert’s lost its exhibition opener Oct. 29 at Wisconsin Green Bay, 80-45. … Head coach Gary Grzesk is in his 15th season. He’s 274-86 at St. Norbert’s with nine conference championships and seven Division III tournaments. … Notre Dame is 41-0 in exhibitions under coach Mike Brey, now in his 22nd season. 

QUOTING: “They’re trying to do everything we’re asking them to do, especially on the defensive end.” 

— Notre Dame coach Mike Brey on his team’s continued commitment to guard.