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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
The Observer

INSIDER: Finding a rhythm

When the Irish gathered in the locker room after the NCAA tournament selection show Sunday night, they answered the usual questions about how excited they were and what they knew about their potential opponents.

But they also answered much harder questions related to performance: What has been the cause of the team’s recent turnover struggles? Why have they gotten off to such slow starts? What clicked during the 10-game stretch where the Irish went 8-2 during the heart of their ACC slate that isn’t now?

All things considered, this Notre Dame team is not like last season’s 32-6 squad that was one basket away from the Final Four. At 21-11, this team has its own identity; one riddled with immense talent, strong leadership and a host of inconsistencies along the way.

And Irish head coach Mike Brey is okay with that, ready to forget about the ups and downs of the season and focus only on what his team can control: what’s ahead of it.

“I think for us, you probably tear up the stats sheet of the regular season — obviously, there are some good stats in there and there are some not so good stats — and say, ‘Complete clean slate,’” Brey said Sunday.

A good portion of Brey’s disposing of statistics might have to do with his team’s performance in Washington last week at the ACC tournament, where the Irish won a thrilling overtime game over perennial power Duke before falling flat a night later against North Carolina, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“We got beat good by a heck of a team, but we won a great one down there too,” Brey said. “We won a thrilling one down there and showed some real March grit. I thought we ran into a buzzsaw against maybe the best team in the tournament, so we’re not going to really dwell on that. Just because we didn’t have a trophy at the selection show up there like last year doesn’t mean we don’t feel like we can get going a little bit.”

In order to get going, however, Notre Dame will have to stop turning the ball over. While they still rank fifth best in the country, averaging only 9.72 turnovers per game, the Irish turned it over 18 times against Duke and 17 times against North Carolina.

“There’s no secret formula, it’s just about handling the ball,” junior guard Demetrius Jackson, who turned it over seven times in the two games in Washington, said.

Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson brings the ball up the court during Notre Dame’s 68-50 loss to Miami (Fla.) on March 2.
Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson brings the ball up the court during Notre Dame’s 68-50 loss to Miami (Fla.) on March 2.
Irish junior guard Demetrius Jackson brings the ball up the court during Notre Dame’s 68-50 loss to Miami (Fla.) on March 2.

While pundits have consistently referenced Notre Dame’s defensive woes all season, the turnover problem is troublesome because it not only has happened so recently — as part of a stretch where the Irish have gone a mere 3-4 — but because it also has affected Jackson and junior guard Steve Vasturia, a duo that many consider to be one of the best backcourts in all of college basketball.

“That’s a conversation that Steve and I have had, just being better,” Jackson said. “It just comes down to really taking care of [the ball], being sharp, paying attention to detail, so it’s really going to start with us, the two lead guards handling the ball most of the time. So we have to set the tone, set the example for the rest of the group.”

“I think our backcourt needs to play better, there’s no question,” Brey said. “We’re so reliant on those guys and we’re not a six seed without what we got out of our guards’ body of work this year and I don’t have to bring up anything with them. Those two guys are really hard on themselves. For us to advance, our guards are going to have to find that rhythm that they had really most of this season.”

That rhythm and backcourt combination contributed to Notre Dame having a few key stretches earlier this season.

In January, the Irish won four conference games in a row, including an impressive road win at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. Just a few weeks later, Notre Dame downed North Carolina, Clemson and Louisville in succession, prompting a discussion about the Irish chasing the ACC regular-season title. Jackson and Vasturia were key in those big games, with the former scoring 24 and 27 against Duke and Louisville, respectively, and the latter adding 22 and 20.

Since then?

The Irish have struggled, losing to Georgia Tech and getting blown out by a middling Florida State team before their recent up-and-down run in the ACC tournament.

Part of the problem may stem from long cold stretches, particularly in the final few minutes before the half. That hurt the Irish against Florida State and Miami late in the season, and was exacerbated in the ACC tournament against Duke and North Carolina.

“The game situation we will do [in practice] is four minutes left, end of half,” Brey said Sunday. “Because we did not handle end of halves well. We were fortunate enough to come back and win the Duke game, but we could not recover in the North Carolina game — and it was a rash of turnovers that were, I thought, very out of character.”

Another issue may stem from Notre Dame just not scoring like it used to. After spending a good portion of the season ranked first in Ken Pomeroy’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency metric (an estimate of the points scored per 100 possessions a team would have against the average D-1 defense), the Irish have slipped to 10th in recent weeks. While Jackson and Vasturia know a lot of the offense rides on them, Brey said he doesn’t want to over-coach and wants them to be as loose as possible.

“The thing with [Jackson] all year — it’s no different now — is just trying to take the weight of the world off him and have him smile a little bit,” Brey said.

Vasturia, who is shooting just 11-of-43 from the field and 1-for-16 from 3-point range over his last five games, admits he has been struggling.

“For me, I just want to help this team win games,” Vasturia said. “Just knocking down shots and staying aggressive.”

If the Irish do want to win games in the NCAA tournament, they will have to clean up their act. If Notre Dame takes care of Michigan, it will have to face one of the top two teams in the country in defensive turnover percentage: No. 14-seeded Stephen F. Austin and No. 3-seeded West Virginia are first and second respectively in that category.

No matter the opponents along the road, the Irish will look to follow Brey’s advice and tear up the stat sheet, sport a short memory and just play their game.

“Mistakes do happen, it’s not a perfect game,” Jackson said. “How quick can you bounce back from that?”

The Irish will soon find out.