Luke Harangody (AP)

Slowing Down The Irish

March 18, 2010

NCAA Tournament Central

By Anthony Oliva III

Leave it to the Notre Dame basketball coach to use a football analogy.

When asked about his team’s sudden and effective change of style, Notre Dame Head Coach Mike Brey brought up a legendary football name – Bill Walsh. Brey remembers Walsh, the father of the now commonly used West Coast offense in the NFL, saying that his innovative offense wasn’t a matter of genius or “drinking some wine and moving around a few salt shakers.” It was, however, “a way to survive”.

Brey, who has dramatically slowed down his team’s tempo over the last few weeks, says the reason for his change of tactic mirrors that of Walsh’s.

“We were up against the wall,” Brey said, who on Feb. 17 had a team that had lost three in a row and looked like a long shot to make the NCAA Tournament. “We had to survive.”

Survive they have. Since the new offense was implemented, Notre Dame has won six of seven, its only loss coming when being eliminated by West Virginia, 53-51, in the Big East Semifinals. During this stretch, a much more patient Irish team defeated Pittsburgh twice, West Virginia, Marquette, Connecticut and Seton Hall. They have held opponents to only 54.4 points a game during that stretch.

As a result, the Irish moved all the way from being a bubble team to being a No. 6 seed in the South Region. The Irish face Old Dominion at 12:25 p.m. in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

Walsh instituted the West Coast offense to, among other reasons, cover up his team’s lack of talent on the offensive line by having the quarterback throw quicker, shorter passes, thus making him less susceptible to a pass rush. Brey instituted his new “burn” offense because he thought his team, once reliant on a fast breaks and scoring points in bunches, was not getting the most out of each possession on both sides of the floor.

“My feeling was that I didn’t feel we were efficient enough offensively number one,” Brey said after Notre Dame’s 50-45 win over Pittsburgh in the Big East Quarterfinals. “We have a lot of talent offensively. We played too fast and our efficiency was down. Number two, I thought it would help us defensively, where we could shorten the game and not have to guard as many ball screens. This league is so fast that I don’t want us to be on defense as much as maybe we would if we shot the ball in 15 seconds.”

The win against Pitt marked the least points scored and least points given up by the Irish in a Big East Tournament game.

“We got the tempo we wanted, 50-45. That’s what we want,” said Brey trying to hold back a smile after the Pittsburgh win.

This is far from the Notre Dame you’re used to. This is your grandpa’s Notre Dame.

“It has slowed us down,” said forward Luke Harangody of the new offense. “I think it has made us better defensively as well. We’re holding teams to under 60 points and I can’t remember the last time we were able to make that happen.”

The team, including the seniors, has embraced this new offense, despite the fact that its principles go against nearly everything it has learned from Brey in previous years.

“I love it,” senior point guard Tory Jackson said. “It gives guys great shots, open shots. A lot of teams don’t want to guard you for the whole 30, 35 seconds, so it kind of wears them down. And, if you are knocking shot after shot down like that, some teams will lay down.”

Brey credits Jackson’s leadership as the catalyst for the team adopting this idea.

“It doesn’t go unless Tory Jackson sells it,” Brey said. “Tory Jackson runs our locker room, runs our team. He could run practice tomorrow. I don’t even need to be there. He was recommending sets at the end of the game tonight. That’s what a senior guard does. When he’s selling it, then I knew it was going to be ok.”

Brey’s team understood that it needed to do something to turn things around in a hurry, so convincing his players of the new tactic came easy for Brey. Convincing himself, a long-time proponent of a having a high-powered offense, that it was the right move was the hard part.

“I’ve gotten some texts and some voicemails saying `Have you bumped your head? What’s going on up there? Is it an out of body experience’,” Brey joked.

Brey said this is the biggest change in strategy that he has ever implemented as a coach. And, even though his change in tempo wasn’t intended to necessarily be a stroke of brilliance, he looks like a genius nonetheless. Notre Dame has improved immeasurably offensively and defensively. The style has also given the Irish a mental edge that they never had before.

“I think there is a huge psychological advantage when the kids we’re playing against know they’re not going to have their hands on the ball very much,” Brey said. “That’s hard to deal with, especially this time of year.”

Old Dominion, the Colonial Athletic Association champion, is going to have to be ready for the new Notre Dame. You can throw out the tape prior to the “burn” offense because this is a completely different team. As a result, the Irish are going to be one of the toughest teams to prepare for in the field of 65.

What makes the Irish even more dangerous is that they’ve completely bought into the new system. And winning – something that Walsh made a habit of – has really transformed the mentality of this resurgent team.

“There’s not one guy on this team that isn’t very confident with what he can do out there,” Harangody said. “It’s great, especially this time of year.”

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