Thursday, January 27, 2011

Irish Basketball: Something Special Brewing?

It's long overdue, but I've finally carved out some time to put down some thoughts on Notre Dame's great start to the 2010-2011 basketball season. The Irish currently sit comfortably at #14 in the polls and 17-4 overall in the midst of what essentially amounts to a bye week.

Monday's victory over #2 Pitt on the road has Irish fans convinced that great things are on the way while others are still very skeptical about the true ceiling of the team. Let's dive right into what's gone on over first few months of the year

True Grit

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:

2009-2010: 5
2008-2009: 9
2007-2008: 10
2006-2007: 6
2005-2006: 7

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.

The Fly in the Ointment

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.

Uncharted Territory

Notre Dame is not a great team, but in a watered down year across the board in the NCAA it's certainly good enough to expect a berth in the Sweet 16. Who knows, depending on how the cards break in March the Irish could sneak even farther in the tournament. One of the ways to ensure the cards break is locking down a #3 seed.

Of course a team's objective is to earn as high a seed as possible, but this is particularly important for Notre Dame. Most projections have the Irish at either a #4 or #5 and in all honesty that's probably where they'll end up. But if they can manage to sneak into the bracket as a #3 they'll avoid a top seed in the round of 16 and open the door for a Cinderella run.

Look at the four top seeds in Bracketology right now and compare them to the next eight teams:

1: Duke, Kansas, Ohio State, Pitt
2: San Diego St, Texas, Villanova, UConn
3: BYU, Texas A&M, Syracuse, Purdue

Let's assume for the sake of this exercise that there's some sort of shuffling between the #2 and #3 seeds but the top seeds remain the same. The committee would shy away from putting an Irish squad in the same part of a bracket where they could face a fellow conference team in the Sweet 16. That means if ND is a #3 seed they could face San Diego St, Texas, BYU, Texas A&M, or Purdue. Those are all games that Notre Dame is absolutely capable of winning.

If Notre Dame lands as a #4 or #5 that means a date with Ohio State, Kansas, or Duke. Those three teams spell "good night" for Cinderella.

It's unrealistic to start making plans for Irish basketball in April, but it's time to heighten and embrace expectations in South Bend. Mike Brey has always been very reluctant to do that and in some instances I think that's sabotaged the team (specifically in '08-'09). This year's squad is different and one quote from Tyrone Nash after the Georgetown victory verifies it.

"We expect to win every game. With this group of guys we should win every game."

That's a far cry from Brey's normal mantra that usually includes "we just want to be in the top eight teams in the Big East." That's a sign that this team is not shying away from success; in fact, they're expecting it.

The fact that Brey hasn't done any sort of "damage control" to reel in expectations may actually hint that even he thinks something special could be brewing in South Bend. It's a baby step toward embracing heightened expectations, but hey, it's a start!


  1. interesting synopsis, but you don't see the connection between the burn offense and the amount of points the opponent scores? the whole point of the burn is to slow down the other team, thus limiting their chances to score. im not buying into a vastly improved nd defense

  2. Pitt was the only game in which they really used the Burn for an extended stretch. The defense is definitely better.

  3. Nail on the head Anonymous #2.

    And Anonymous #1, I would absolutely argue it's a vastly improved defense. It's not elite by any stretch, but if you looked at the defensive statistics from the last few years ND ranked in the bottom 5% of the entire NCAA in a lot of categories which was an inexcusable embarrassment. That's not the case this season.

    We have a respectable defense and that's a colossal step forward from previous outfits.

  4. If you watched the Georgetown game you had to be impressed with the defense. Georgetown may not be an elits offensive team but in that game their offense was completely shut down like I can't remember ND ever doing. The burn had nothing to do with it.

  5. It's actually two sides of the same coin - the Burn offense makes the overall scoring defense look better because it limits points, but the Burn would not be possible without quality defense.

    If we run the Burn for the first ten minutes of the game but can't stop the other team and still find ourselves down 12 points, we have to abandon the Burn.

    They have to work together.

  6. Martin has been a disappointment, that is true. But what about Abro! This guy is a head case. He has periodic meltdowns and is taking up space-- or is it business administration. It's time to replace him in the starting lineup with Atkins. He crapped out for the last third of last year, and has done it again this year.

  7. Completely disagree on Abro. His problem is that he's just not an assertive personality. In the Burn Offense the team is working with tight time restraints and it demands decisiveness and aggressiveness in the last 10 seconds of the clock. Neither of those things are a strength of Tim Abromaitis; in fact, his tendency is to turn into a ghost in those situations.

    I'm not excusing his disappearing act on account of personality, I'm merely pointing out the reality of the situation.

    Obviously this is something Tim and Brey need to fix immediately. Brey uncharacteristically jumped on Abro during the Pitt game in an attempt to light a fire under him. I put a lot of the onus on Brey to find a way to jumpstart one of his best players and getting him comfortable in the flow of a more methodical offense.

    I don't know how exactly Coach Brey plans to do that (Spring him off of some screens late in the shot clock? Put an electric collar on him and shock him every time he passes up a shot?), but I do know that Notre Dame's best chance to win is with Abro on the court, not on the bench.

  8. The "burn" style offense is also aimed at tiring the other team, drawing fouls due to their frustration, causing poor decisions, and thus using an advantage in discipline to win games. Making a team play defense for 30 seconds every trip down the floor weakens their legs on the offensive end. The other team gets fidgety, takes bad shots, and gives bad fouls. As long as a burn-style offense doesn't lose sight of being aggressive at all times (even during the burn, take a layup), especially as the shot clock winds down, it can be very effective for a disciplined team.

  9. The best thing about the Pitt game is that Brooks didn't play. He will never have the "right stuff" and should transfer to Coppin St. ASAP.

  10. Abro hasn't gotten the ball when he has been open, so I'm not sure why you want to criticize the kid for not taking bad shots. He needs to be in there and getting shots for this team to make a deep run, and that requires finding ways to get him looks because he has never been a guy to really create for himself. This hasn't been him disappearing, it has been others not finding him for stretches. As for putting Atkins in the starting lineup over him, you clearly don't understand the value of the team's leading rebounder, second leading scorer, one of the best team defenders and a shooting threat that creates a ton of openings for Ben to drive as he doesn't allow defenses to help off of him. Learn the game before you crap on a kid who plays his ass off and refuses to hurt the team to get his stats up to satisfy you.

  11. This years hoops team is fantastic to watch. Tough-minded, gritty, team basketball. Getting a #2 or #3 seed is absolutely in reach. 3 wins over top 10 opponents. Only team in the country. 7 wins over RPI top 50. Only team in the country. Current RPI 5 or 6 depending on where you look. Anyone with anything negative to say about this team needs to go away because you don't understand basketball and you are not a ND fan. As for Brooks, you couldn't be more wrong. He needs to improve his foul shooting. Joey has the kind of athleticism and ability to get to the rim this teams needs. If he can improve his FT shooting like Tyrone has this year, Brooks will play major minutes next year. He has also, in limited minutes, shown an ability to guard people very effectively. Imagine the athletes we can put on the floor next year. Atkins, Scott, Grant, Brooks, Martin. GO IRISH!

  12. Good Lord, what's with the condescending venom?

    Abro belongs on the court and needs to get more involved. He's had a tendency to disappear lately and has had a difficult time getting in the flow of the game so some criticism is fair, but to say he should be relegated to the bench is simply wrong. He's one of the three best players on the team, one of the smartest players on the floor, and is capable of getting Matt Carroll Hot from behind the arc. He and Brey need to work together to figured out how to spark him and begin being more assertive.

    Brooks is coming along slowly, especially on the offensive end, but he's a capable defender who can provide much needed spot minutes. He reminds me a bit of Torian Jones--unpolished on offense, very solid athlete. He'll play a big role over the next couple of years, he's just another guy that needs more time to adjust and get comfortable with the speed of the Big East.

    And I am VERY excited for Grant next year, I think he's the next ND stud.

  13. I actually find Martin to be one of only three players that can (or at least tries) to take people off the dribble (Hansbrough and Atkins are the other 2). Hansbrough wills his way around faster, more athletic players. Abro is strictly catch and shoot. Nash is crab dribble, spin, and shoot in the paint. Scott, though he doesn't take people off the dribble, has the length and athleticism to make his presence felt. The priority has to be on penetration - that opens up all the spot up shooters and allows Nash/Scott to fill the lanes. As soon as Atkins embraces that role, this team could be on a special run to the elite 8. The only danger I see now is the possible 'Harangody' effect where everyone EXPECTS Ben to take over at the critical point of the game. That shouldn't be on his shoulders, but it happened at KY and Pittsburgh, most notably. If Atkins can't grow into that role this year, then Martin seems to be the best alternative when it comes to creating off the dribble, outside of BH. The one good sign is that he doesn't seem to disappear like Abro when he faces lock down man-to-man. He also had a hot start shooting against Pitt. There was no hesitation on his first 2 three point shots. I see that as further evidence that he is finding his rhythm in the Brey offense. Let's face it, Brey's approach is rather limiting - and it almost has to be - because he's building teams around role players. Every once and a while you get a Garrity, Murphy, or Harangody, but for the most part you get the players that Duke, Carolina, and half the Big East overlooked in recruiting. I've been especially proud this year the way they've responded in the last 5 minutes of their hotly contested games. I could tell in the Georgia game early on that this wasn't the same old ND team that, in years past, tended to crumble under pressure.

  14. You know its bad when even Bill Raftery calls out Ty Nash for not having a 2nd move down on the block.

  15. The only problem i have with Brey this year and usually every year is that we never use our bench. He usually just runs with a 7-8 man rotation. He never plays freshman except out of necessity and that is usually at the PG. But he has done fine recruiting that position with Jackson and Atkins. But what about our other positions? Are the other freshman not good enough to play? Then why recruit them. I thought you were supposed to recruit kids that can come in and help the team right away. Not just wait to use him when he is a redshirt junior and if he is lucky he will make the 7 man rotation. I dont know and always wonder this so maybe someone can shed some light on this for me.

  16. I think it's hard to get freshman any minutes when you aren't able to recruit any impact players out of high school. ND guys are 4 year players. Harangody holds most of Irish records and he was a third rounder if he had decided to come out early. I don't like it either, but Brey's one glaring advantage is experience over superior athletic teams. Things may slowly be changing, though, they have a 4 star recruit lined up in each of the next 2 years. of course, Kentucky gets three to four 5 star recruits each class. So, what are ya gonna do? Settle for the 'Burn', that's what.

  17. I heard on TV that all starters still have a year of eligibility. Is that correct? Is it possible to field an all graduate team? (unlikely, but it would get great press)

  18. Unfortunately that's not correct. Hansbrough and Nash are in their final year of eligibility.