Notre Dame basketball could not operate against the Syracuse zone defense in home loss

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Dec 3, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey talks to his players during a time out in the first half against the Syracuse Orange at the Purcell Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

SOUTH BEND — So much for building off the season’s best win three days earlier, being even better and getting win greedy at home. 

So much for opening Atlantic Coast Conference play in a different way than how it all started the previous four. 

So much for this Notre Dame men’s basketball team looking and playing and shooting and scoring for a second straight game like a team that had figured it all out. 

So much for the Irish not treating a 2/3 zone defense that they see at least once every season like something from outer space. They treated it as just that. 

What once should have been stunning news now is the college football standard

Notre Dame gets its game and season in gear against No. 20 Michigan State

“We,” said super senior guard Dane Goodwin, “couldn’t figure it out.” 

Just when you thought Notre Dame had turned the proverbial college basketball corner and had its direction down — its rhythm, its rotation, its direction — along comes its old two-time conference nemesis in Syracuse and that aggravating zone defense. 

Everything Notre Dame seemingly knew about basketball was forgotten. Move it? Shoot it? Take care of it? Anyone? A veteran Irish team looked nothing like a veteran Irish team as all the good vibes accumulated earlier in the week with a win over then-No. 20 Michigan State evaporated Saturday at Purcell Pavilion in a 62-61 loss. 

Man, was that ugly. Bad ugly. 

There are home losses, and then there are bad home losses. Home losses that should never happen. This one was a bad one. A never-should-have-happened one. All against a Syracuse squad that’s not expected to do much in the league.

Earlier in the week, earlier this summer, Notre Dame (6-2 overall; 0-1 ACC) talked collectively about chasing the goal of winning the regular-season league championship. Teams that do that don’t do what the Irish did Saturday. 

Head coach Mike Brey had looked at his team’s first five games as a point of pride. There were times against Radford and Lipscomb and everyone else when Notre Dame could have — and maybe should have — gotten clipped. But it never got clipped. 

The Irish have been clipped in two of their last three. St. Bonaventure? Bad loss. Syracuse? Bad loss. Somebody check the schedule and make sure there are no more teams from New York State on it. 

Syracuse again in the Dome next month? Ugh.

Still, Notre Dame finally looked like it had shaken free from its fog after taking its first lead in seemingly forever following a Marcus Hammond drive and free throw with 29.5 seconds remaining. But the Irish didn’t deliver on the defensive end for most of the afternoon, so they certainly weren't going to do it at closing time. 

Syracuse freshman guard Judah Mintz drove it with relative ease right down Eddy Street and dropped in the game winner with 7.1 seconds left. Dane Goodwin had a chance to repeat his game-winner of last month against Lipscomb, but the shot was another a low-percentage look — a difficult two in front of the Irish bench — that bounced off the rim and fell away at the horn.

Notre Dame didn't deserve to be on the right side of the final bounce.

Somebody would’ve paid good money to sit in on some of those Notre Dame huddles during the plethora of timeouts late in the second half. For the record, there were seven stoppages stacked within a five-plus minute window. What exactly did the Irish discuss? Dinner plans? Class assignments? Watch the in-game entertainment? 

They certainly didn’t seem to spend much time on game strategy. Or on the advantage of playing two bigs at the same time. Or on how to free up some of the key guys to get shots. Or on how to muster a few more easy scoring chances or do anything besides throw the ball from side to side and back and forth — often never getting below the free throw line — before someone in the home whites was handed another late-clock look that resulted in another grenade of a shot. 

A grenade that missed the target. Again. The Irish shooting percentages (38.3 from the field, 33.3 from 3) didn’t help. Neither did the 10 turnovers. 

“You just gotta score more than 61 points against the zone,” Brey said. “There’s probably a little bit of a state of mind when you play against it. It tends to tranquilize the whole building.” 

That it did. Zzzzzzzzz.

At no time was it more apparent that the Irish were too lost inside their own heads to see/think/shoot/play than with 3:45 left and the Orange up 58-55. The under-four-minute timeout gave Notre Dame time to strategize. Back from the timeout, the Irish assessed their out-of-bounds-under situation and called another timeout — a 30-second one that extended to a full break. 

More time to talk. More time to think. More time to figure out. 

Six seconds remained on the shot clock when Notre Dame inbounded the ball before a degree-of-difficulty 3 from freshman J.J. Starling. It missed. Syracuse smothered the defensive rebound, went down to the other end and went up by five on a Joe Girard layup. 

Nice strategy there, guys. 

“We can’t just stand still and wait for it,” Goodwin said. “We’ve got to go get it. We’ll work through it and figure it out.” 

Rule No. 1 when playing Syracuse — don’t get spooked by the zone. Notre Dame played spooked. It was outplayed. It was outcoached. It was out-everythinged. 

“Their zone stalled us a little more in the second half,” Brey said. “Figured it would be game situations.” 

Situations that the Irish couldn't execute.

Everyone Irish seemed to coach or play or watch with the thought that the old guys eventually would figure it out and find their way through. They never did. As a result, they own another L that looks bad. 

A team loaded with four super seniors and a fifth-year guy has to be better than Notre Dame was against that zone. It wasn’t as if the Irish walked onto the floor just after noon, saw Syracuse settle into its defensive look and say, huh, that’s different. 

Notre Dame knew the zone was coming, but had little idea/want-to on how to attack it. There were a few good possessions early and then sporadically in the second half, but for the most part, a team that should be better at solving that zone algebra problem never did. 

As good as Wednesday was, Saturday was the opposite. Can’t let league games at home get away if you want to do something in league play. It’s a lesson Notre Dame seemingly had previously learned, but one it forgot. 

Just like how to play against a zone.

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.


At Purcell Pavilion

SYRACUSE (4-4): Bell 1-2 0-0 2, Williams 1-4 0-0 2, Edwards 10-15 2-2 22, Girard 9-18 0-0 20, Mintz 4-10 1-2 9, Taylor 2-5 0-0 5, Ajak 1-3 0-0 2, Torrence 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 28-58 3-4 62.

NOTRE DAME (6-2): Laszewski 1-6 0-0 2, Goodwin 6-13 1-1 16, Ryan 5-11 0-0 14, Starling 3-9 0-0 7, Wertz 2-9 0-0 6, Hammond 2-6 1-1 6, Lubin 4-6 2-3 10. Totals 23-60 4-5 61.

Halftime: 35-35. 3-Point Goals: Syracuse 3-18 (Girard 2-10, Taylor 1-3, Bell 0-1, Williams 0-1, Mintz 0-3), Notre Dame 11-33 (Ryan 4-8, Goodwin 3-4, Wertz 2-9, Hammond 1-4, Starling 1-6, Laszewski 0-2). Rebounds: Syracuse 27 (Edwards 14), Notre Dame 33 (Goodwin 9). Assists: Syracuse 12 (Ajak 4), Notre Dame 15 (Laszewski, Goodwin, Ryan, Hammond 3). Total Fouls: Syracuse 9, Notre Dame 6. A: 5,702 (9,149).