Jan. 2, 2015
There are 33 categories that the NCAA tracks for men’s college basketball teams, ranging from scoring offense to fewest fouls.
Those statistics can be remarkably revealing about a team.
Coach Mike Brey’s University of Notre Dame men’s basketball team leads the nation in field-goal shooting percentage, hitting 55.4 percent of its shots. The Fighting Irish are third in the nation in scoring offense, torching the nets for 86.1 points a game.
Statistics, though, don’t tell the entire story.
As the Fighting Irish enter the 2015 portion of their schedule, categories that can’t be measured – heart, unselfishness and chemistry – will matter as much as any statistics in determining whether or not Notre Dame’s players will have a chance to cut down nets this season.
Flashy statistics and numbers aside, what the Irish have shown so far is that they have the talent and toughness to make March memorable.
Pre-season projections listed Notre Dame as low as a 12-seed in the NCAA Championship. After a 13-1 start, the Irish are ranked No. 13 in the nation, looking more like a potentially dangerous NCAA entrant every day.
Now the Irish enter 2015 and the exclusively Atlantic Coast Conference portion of its schedule. The Irish played one ACC game, trouncing Florida State 83-63 on Dec. 13, and take a 1-0 league record into the remainder of the regular-season schedule, a run of 17 ACC games. The Irish start the ACC stretch Saturday (Jan. 3) when Notre Dame hosts Georgia Tech at 2:30 p.m. EST.
Here’s a look at what can lift the Irish into the thick of the ACC fray and up the ladders in March:
Brey took full advantage of extra practices and exhibition games to do a remarkable job of teaching and forging team chemistry during Notre Dame’s summer trip to Italy. Now Brey has a team whose unselfishness is reflected in its scoring balance and efficiency.
“It’s our chemistry, how we move the ball, how unselfish we are,” Grant said of why the Irish are lighting up the scoreboard and rolling into the ACC as a contender. “Everybody is passing, everybody is getting a look. Guys aren’t hunting their shot. They know their shot is going to come.”
That chemistry of working together has made the Irish a dangerous team.
“We have a great trust in each other,” Jackson said. “That’s going to carry us. Sometimes, we have a mistake or turnover, and there’s always somebody to tell you to pick your head up and get back on defense. Our communication is really good.”
Opposing defenses will have a hard time shutting down Notre Dame’s firepower. The Irish boast four players who average scoring in double figures – Jerian Grant (17.4 points a game), Zach Auguste (14.9), Demetrius Jackson (14.4) and Pat Connaughton (14.0). Steve Vasturia (8.7) and V.J. Beachem (8.1) aren’t that far away from averaging in double figures.
Notre Dame has the distinction of having had five different players finish a game as the leading scorer. In its 14 games, the Irish had six players score in double figures once, had five players score in double figures three times, had four players score in double figures nine times and had three players score in double figures once.
“Teams aren’t going to be able to key on one guy,” Grant said. “We have a whole team that can do it.”
Although Notre Dame’s explosiveness dazzles – #DunksDuLac may be the hash tag that soars during #MarchMadness – it’s efficiency that will generate a deep run in the NCAA Tournament for the Irish.
Notre Dame leads the nation in field-goal shooting at 55.4 percent. Four Irish starters are hitting better than 50 percent – Grant 52.8 percent, August 67.7, Jackson 58.1, Vasturia 52.4 – and Connaughton is on the brink at 49.6 percent.
“Our offensive efficiency is an unbelievable weapon for us, even when we’re having defensive lapses or people are getting to us,” Brey said. “Our offensive efficiency has been excellent. We’re improved defensively and that’s helped us.”
Last season, the Irish only hit 45.5 percent of their shots, which was 102nd in the nation.
“I do give No. 22 (Grant) a lot of credit,” Brey said of his team making a quantum leap to the nation’s top spot in field-goal shooting. “One of the things we said when we were in Italy, the three-point line was longer and we were playing with a different ball, and the first two games we shot about 40 percent from the three-point line.
“I said, `Why is that happening?’ Jerian’s back. You see that he gets guys easy looks. That has gotten contagious and Demetrius now gets in there and does that.”
Notre Dame has been tenacious defensively and boasts a plus-92 in assists to turnovers, while Irish opponents are at minus-25. The Irish have been playing grand-theft hoops, swiping the ball 107 times (as opposed to getting it stolen 61 times).
Notre Dame allows an average of 60.9 points a game (73rd in the nation), but Brey feels the Irish need to be even more relentless in order to finishing in the upper echelon in the ACC.
“I think we have to work on changing defenses … when to work in some zone and change things up,” Brey said. “We’ve got to keep that offensive efficiency up and not get out of character just because it’s ACC play.”
REBOUNDING Notre Dame’s defensive rebounding stands at 27.0 (41st in the nation, sixth in the ACC). That is Brey’s biggest worry heading into the bulk of ACC play.
“An area of concern comes back to defensive rebounding, as I’ve said from day one, back on media day,” Brey said. “Georgia Tech, for example, comes in here with a huge front line and they pound on that board. We absorbed 16 or 18 offensive rebounds against Michigan State, but we almost didn’t get out of there. We’ve got to be better. We can’t absorb that in league play or it’s not going to be good.”
Beachem has returned from a foot injury and gives the Irish additional firepower from the perimeter. The long, 6-foot-8 sophomore can be a tough match-up for opponents. He’s able to defend a guard or a forward, and he can score from the perimeter or inside.
Austin Torres has emerged as a key force off the bench for the Irish. When Michigan State was bullying the Irish on the boards, Torres, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, turned around the Irish fortunes. He delivered big for the Irish in overtime, helping Notre Dame grab a 79-78 victory.
Torres also played big against Purdue, scoring 11 points in a 94-63 rout of the Boilermakers.
When Notre Dame fell behind Hartford 10-3 Tuesday night, the Irish weren’t fazed. They quickly went on an 18-6 run.
“I told them that in the locker room, I said I really liked how we were poised,” Brey said about his team calmly responding. “We did that against UMass, and that’s when we were still finding ourselves. But I told them that’s a good trait to have because now (in ACC play) we’re going to take some punches throughout a game. Can we be poised and not panic, hang in there and not get out of character, do what we do? I did like that.”
Whether it’s Connaughton diving for a loose ball, 6-foot-1 Jackson blasting off to dunk over a 7-foot-2 center, Grant driving the lane and finishing despite being fouled, the Irish have unleashed a no-fear attack this season.
Brey recruited players who are unselfish and tough, and those characteristics have helped the Irish vault up the national rankings.
“I think just the toughness, togetherness and the way we have each other’s backs have led to our success thus far,” Connaughton said. “We are going to hit some adversity moving forward and I think that we may not have faced the adversity that much this season, but we need to stick together with the calmness that we’ve been playing with.
“Hartford got off to a great start, but there was never one second where guys were getting frustrated with each other. We know if we stick together and play the way we’re capable of playing, we’re going to be very tough to beat, especially in this building.”
Notre Dame hasn’t played a true road game, but it did play at two neutral sites packed with opposing fans (Providence in Connecticut and Purdue in Indianapolis). The Irish face road trips to Chapel Hill, Durham and Louisville, three of the most hostile environments in college basketball.
Connaughton thinks the Irish toughness will help the Irish in their road tests.
“We have to be mentally focused and not let up,” Connaughton said. “When we put the metal to the pedal, we’re a very tough team to beat. It’s a matter of knowing that. You go into very hostile environments in the ACC. We can’t shy away from that. We can’t be playing on our heels. We have to be on our toes, we have to be attacking at all times. If we stick together and have each other’s backs, we’ll come out of it.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent