There is no debating that Ben Hansbrough is the heart and soul of this year’s Irish squad. He has taken the torch from Tory Jackson and become the de facto leader on the court, not only igniting the Irish offense but far more importantly awakening a long dormant (read: non-existent) Irish defense.
In almost every season of the last decade Notre Dame has been one of the worst defensive teams in the country. That has completely changed this year and it’s blatantly obvious to anyone that’s followed the team through the years.
Now there may be some non-believers out there that will claim it’s an illusion, but statistics support the theory that there's been marked improvement. Here is a list with the number of games Notre Dame allowed an opponent to score 80+ points in the past five seasons:
You know how many times Notre Dame has allowed 80 points this season? ONE! And it was in a double overtime victory against Georgia. My safe assumption is that Mike Brey didn't suddenly have a some sort of defensive epiphany this offseason. Hansbrough is tough, gritty, and relentless and these traits have rubbed off on the rest of the team on the defensive side of the ball. In key spots Notre Dame has found ways to get the necessary stops.
Read that last sentence again. When’s the last time we’ve been able to utter that about the basketball team?
The team has taken on the personality of its leader and that’s making a colossal difference on a team that isn’t nearly as high-octane on the offensive end as in previous years. He’s not the fastest guy, he’s not the most athletic guy, but that doesn’t stop Hansbrough from hounding whoever he’s assigned to guard.
He is almost single-handedly debunking the myth that Notre Dame doesn’t have the athletes to play good defense in the Big East. Defense is not as much about having athletes as it is about effort and attitude. Ben Hansbrough proves that every time he takes the court and the result has been the best defensive team of the Mike Brey Era—or at the very least the best since Ryan Humphrey was sending shots into the fourth row.
Burn Baby, Burn
I know it's ugly, but I personally LOVE The Burn Offense. It's exactly what Notre Dame needs to do to compete with the upper echelon Big East teams (read: teams with loads of athleticism). If we line up against the Pitts and Louisvilles of the world and try to just go up and down the court with them we're going to win 1 out of every 4 times. By shortening the game we limit opponent possessions and over time begin to frustrate the living hell out of them.
Year in and year out we're one of the most efficient teams in the entire NCAA in terms of points per offensive possession and The Burn plays right into that. We're saying, "we're going to make it a game of first team to 60 and whoever is more efficient with the ball will win." Frankly, I like our odds in a game like that and the results prove that to be true. In the 8 games Notre Dame has used The Burn they’re 6-2 including three wins over Pitt and four total victories over ranked teams. The two losses? By a combined 3 points.
Hansbrough was masterful in his orchestration of the offense against Pitt even without his old backcourt mate Tory Jackson to aid him. Last year the combination of Ben and Tory was great at creating a quality opportunity under time constraints—this is where having that offensive chemistry that Brey raves about (at the expense of developing a bench) comes up big.
A lot of times the defense begins to press a bit if only because they're antsy and frustrated by how slow everything develops and how patient they need to be. That lack of patience creates a crease and when we convert it completely deflates the other team.
Just think about the mental letdown a defense experiences when an opponent hits a shot at the end of the shot clock. Now picture that happening once every few possessions over the course of the entire game...and when ND picks up an offensive rebound it starts all over again. That has a serious mental effect on the opponent and the collective result usually turns out in Notre Dame's favor.
In a season full of so many pleasant surprises there’s been one somewhat baffling disappointment: Scott Martin. Mike Brey has raved about how he’s the best offensive player he’s ever coached. In the WNG basketball preview last year Kyle McAlarney said, “Scott is as talented a player as ND has had in recent years, the most talented player I ever played with at Notre Dame…He reminds me of Chris Mullen, he is a pure scorer.”
Needless to say my expectations were very, very high heading into the season. So far they’re about a few acres from even being approached.
Martin is a serviceable complementary player, but he’s hardly been the offensive force he was built up to be. He's been a below average shooter (36% FG and 30% 3-pt in Big East play), a relatively slow defender (tied with Cooley in steals with a whopping 5), has flashed mediocre touch around the basket, and is a marginal rebounder. That’s not Chris Mullen, it’s the poor man’s Dan Miller.
Now there are a variety of reasons for why he’s had such a tough time making an impact this season. First and foremost is the fact that he suffered a devastating knee injury last year. Is it possible that the step he’s certainly lost could have robbed him of his explosiveness? Absolutely, in fact it’s probable.
Another huge factor is the adjustment to the speed of the Big East after two whole years off from game action. There are times when he’s out there where you can tell he’s overwhelmed and has a hard time processing everything.
There were back-to-back possessions in the Syracuse game where Martin got the ball, panicked despite the fact that there really wasn’t a lot of pressure, and made a quick pass right into the hands of a defender. It was like the kid in 8th grade that barely plays and doesn’t want the ball in his hands because he doesn’t want to screw up.
I’m not ready to write off Scott Martin yet, but unfortunately my hope of him turning a corner this year is fading fast simply because we’ve yet to see any real flashes that indicate an arrival is on its way. I hope he proves me wrong, changes his number from #14 to #17, begins talking with a thick New York accent, and starts making it rain like this guy.