South Bend Ballers
The Notre Dame Irish aren’t just getting lucky.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
Notre Dame hasn’t exactly come out of nowhere to be a force in the nation’s toughest conference, but no one saw this level of success coming.
The truth is, long before vaulting from seventh in the Big East’s pre-season poll to seventh in the entire country, Notre Dame has been one of the more consistent programs of the past decade. That consistency might not translate into NCAA Tournament wins (or even appearances for that matter), but Mike Brey always gets the most out of his squad.
It seems that despite a perceived lack of talent, quickness, or athleticism to compete in the Big East, the Fighting Irish overachieve, are one of conference’s toughest opponents, and are fighting for an NCAA Tournament spot. The only difference between this year and the rest is that instead of overachieving, Mike Brey’s team is borderline dominating the Big East competition.
Going into this Saturday’s game at South Florida, Notre Dame is 20-4, with an extremely impressive 9-3 mark in conference play (losses coming at Syracuse, at St John’s and at Marquette). Though I’m sure the Irish would love to have those St. John’s and Marquette games back, Notre Dame still boasts a sterling resume, highlighted by a win at Pittsburgh (let’s say you could look up “signature win” in the dictionary … a picture of the Zoo in Pittsburgh would be staring you in the face).
So what is the secret to Notre Dame’s success? Could it be Brey’s ultra-classy turtleneck? Wouldn’t surprise me. A separate and equally viable theory is that Notre Dame is winning with unselfish, mistake free, experienced basketball. The Irish aren’t going to blow people away with their athleticism or run teams out of the gym (though each one of their starters, from Big East POY contender Ben Hansbrough all the way to big man Tyrone Nash, is no slouch).
While Notre Dame’s overall size is pretty impressive (in addition to its three 6-8 forwards, Notre Dame is probably the only school that can run out a 6-3 point guard and a 6-8 Monstars-esque shooting guard), its overall depth is also questionable (only two subs, Luke Hargondy-clone Jack Cooley and point guard of the future freshman Eric Atkins, got action during last Wednesday’s overtime win vs Louisville). But, what the fellas from South Bend lack in athleticism and depth, they easily make up for in deadly floor spacing and a knack for finding the extra man on the perimeter.
Mike Brey’s short bench might seem like a shortcoming, but Notre Dame is stronger when it plays this way. Having fewer options off the pine does force Brey to play his starters more minutes, but it also ensures that four capable shooters are on the court at all times. Hansbrough and versatile small forward Tim Abromaitis are lights out gunners with the slightest space, and Purdue transfer Scott Martin and versatile forward Carleton Scott are just as dangerous if left open.
Notre Dame is clearly aware of its strength as a team; the Irish are hoisting up nearly 20 threes per game. That may seem like a recipe for disaster on a cold-shooting night, but on an experienced team that knows who to give the ball to when and in what spots, the majority of those 20 threes are uncontested or high percentage looks. Unlike most teams who shoot contested, rushed, or pull-up three pointers to reach 20 attempts, Notre Dame’s are the result of familiarity and execution.
Of course, Notre Dame could have a roster filled with 12 Ray Allens and it wouldn’t matter without the threat of a point guard who can both create for himself and hit the open man. The development of Ben Hansbrough from a catch and shoot guard with decent handle to a dangerous and attention-grabbing playmaker off the dribble (the Mississippi State transfer has already matched his 129 free-throw attempts from last season) has made each of his teammates more of a threat.
While its offensive efficiency is what jumps off the page (some more impressive stats: team FG% of 46 percent, 3PT% of 38 percent, and an A:T ratio of 17:11), Notre Dame’s significant edge in experience over nearly every opponent is probably more important.
The following stat, courtesy of Pat Forde and his Notre Dame-Louisville post-game blog for ESPN.com, gives a great feel for just how old in basketball years this Fighting Irish starting lineup is. Ben Hansbrough has played in 126 games, Nash 108, Scott 74, Abromaitis 71, and Martin 55 (which would’ve been more if he hadn’t injured his ACL last fall).
It’s unlikely anyone the Irish faces this season can match the game knowledge and poise that comes from playing that many basketball games in a career. Searching for a reason to advance Notre Dame in your March bracket? Look no further.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.