Notre Dame’s 73-62 loss to North Carolina over the weekend was pretty much a microcosm of the season. The Irish showed flashes of brilliance (see their 13-4 start in the first six minutes of the game), but they also showed defensive listlessness and carelessness with the ball (see most of the rest of the game) that ultimately led to their eighth loss in their last 10 games.
“You’re searching a little bit and wondering,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said after his team’s latest setback.
Brey knew coming into Notre Dame’s first season in the ACC that treading in new conference waters wouldn’t be easy. His biggest problem entering the new campaign appeared to be replacing the inside presence of Jack Cooley’s daily double-double. He wasn’t counting on losing his leading scorer just 12 games into the season as well.
That’s what happened though when Jerian Grant and his 19 points a night were forced to pack up and leave campus due to an academic issue. Brey also wasn’t counting on sophomore Austin Burgett battling a heart issue midway through the season or Cam Biedscheid announcing his transfer at semester - but they are reality as well.
Saturday’s reality was an overmatched Irish team trying to contend with a well-oiled Tar Heel machine. North Carolina used its bread and butter – its secondary break – to run a layup, alley-oop and slam dunk fest for most of the afternoon.
“They’ve always been good on offense,” said Irish center Garrick Sherman of the Tar Heels. “That is just what North Carolina does.”
The secondary break has been a Tar Heel staple since Roy Williams was a Dean Smith assistant in the ’80s and they put on a clinic on Saturday. Brey’s Irish were caught in a catch-22 though. In order to counter Carolina’s size, Brey went with big men Sherman and Zach Auguste together for longer stretches (Auguste played nearly double his 14 minute per game average). The result was the quicker and more athletic Tar Heels pushing the ball up court for uncontested baskets.
“We have to get back and not allow as many transition buckets as we did today,” said Sherman. “We have to at least give ourselves a chance.”
That’s easier said than done. Sherman has given the Irish a solid inside presence in his last college season. The Michigan State transfer is averaging team-highs of 14.6 points and 7.9 rebounds. Those numbers both look good, but the problem is Sherman’s turnovers. His team-high 68 in 24 games are already 18 more than Cooley committed all of last season and represent about one-fourth of the team’s total this season.
“They’ve hurt,” Sherman said of the turnovers. “But, a lot of defense too – if we don’t turn the ball over maybe we have a little bit better defensive positioning, because we’re not running back. It’s just execution – that’s all it comes down to.”
Pat Connaughton and Eric Atkins continue to be Notre Dame’s ironmen. They are averaging 36.5 and 37.5 minutes per game, respectively. They played 39 and 38 respective minutes Saturday – just a week removed from each playing all 45 minutes in an overtime win over Boston College. Neither left the floor in last Monday’s loss to Syracuse either.
“We need to focus on the next game,” Connaughton said after being held to one point in the second half against the Tar Heels. “We have to take it one game at a time and keep pushing forward to the last game of the season.”
Is the 12-12 record the Irish have heading into the final seven games of the regular season a referendum on Brey as a coach? No more than the conditions in Sochi are a referendum of the Olympics on the whole.
Brey’s critics like to point to his team’s lack of success after reaching the NCAA Tournament as one of Brey’s most fatal flaws. It’s easy to forget that to fail in the tournament one first has to reach the tournament. Brey’s nine NCAA Tournament appearances in his first 13 seasons are still nine more than the program had in the decade before he arrived.
Biedscheid left Notre Dame, because he ultimately wasn’t happy with the “five-year plan” Brey laid out for him. Brey consistently wins with five-year guys (a program record seven straight 20-win campaigns heading into this season) when most coaches are lucky to get one or even two years in college out of their stars.
Digger Phelps just went into the Notre Dame Ring of Honor after guiding 14 Irish teams to the NCAA Tournament in his 20 years at Notre Dame. That was a different time for college basketball though.
Patrick Ewing left Georgetown as a three-time consensus All-American after playing for four years for John Thompson and the Hoyas in the mid-’80s. Players of Ewing’s ilk are one and done these days.
At a school that prides itself on academics and athletics – Brey gets the most out of his players, both on and off the court. That’s not a one and done proposition.