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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Padanilam: Irish struggles are result of poor play, not injuries

Alright, let’s start with the obvious: Notre Dame misses Bonzie Colson.

Losers of four straight, the Irish (13-7, 3-4 ACC) have seen themselves fall back to Earth after an improbable 3-0 start in conference play given the laundry list of injuries — Colson, a senior forward, will be sidelined until March, senior guard Matt Farrell missed three games and freshman wing D.J. Harvey will be sidelined for several weeks as well.

Zachary Yim | The Observer
Senior center Martinas Geben throws down a dunk in a 82-78 loss to Louisville on Jan. 16.

Stating the obvious again, missing three key rotational players during a stretch of play doesn’t often bode well for a team’s success during that stretch. And over the last four games, it hasn’t. Sure, the Irish have Farrell back. But Colson was a preseason All-American, and Harvey was expected to provide much needed scoring for a second unit that largely lacks an ability to create its own shot and offense, so missing them certainly accounts for some of the issues with Notre Dame’s recent skid.

But, at the same time, injuries don't account for all — or even most— of these issues. In fact, one issue has become abundantly clear as the Irish have seen their chances of qualifying for the NCAA tournament slide as loss after loss has accumulated over the last two weeks.

Notre Dame is pressing offensively, and it’s costing the team when it matters most.

Consider its last game against No. 18 Clemson. Down six points with 4:47 to go, the Irish were well within reach. Even without Colson or Harvey, the Irish have five players in their rotation capable of knocking down an open shot. They also shoot 76 percent from the free-throw line as a team, a top-40 mark in the sport. So, if they could move the ball effectively and create open shots for any of its shooters or a lane to attack the rim, they would have no problem chipping away at the Tigers’ lead.

Instead, Farrell hoisted a long 3 that missed the mark.

But after a defensive stop, the Irish once again had both the opportunity and time to play smart, efficient and poised on the offensive end and slowly begin chipping away at the lead.

Instead, junior guard Rex Pflueger hoisted an even longer 3 just eight seconds into the possession that did not find the mark.

Two wasted possessions, stunting any chance to build much needed momentum down the game’s final five minute stretch, and the Irish found themselves on the losing end as a result.

That inefficiency is not limited to the Clemson loss, however. In the two games he’s played during this losing stretch, Farrell is just 6-of-24 from the 3-point line. Pflueger in the four losses? 3-for-16. Sophomore guard T.J. Gibbs? 8-for-27. All well below their season percentages.

But it’s not an ordinary or expected cold stretch of shooting — many of the shots that have been missed by the team’s three best perimeter players have been the result of poor shot selection and seemingly forced desperation when there is no cause for it.

It shows in other areas, too. Through 16 games, Notre Dame was averaging approximately 21 free-throw attempts per game and converting on roughly 16 of those attempts. In its last four loses, the Irish are averaging just 10 attempts per game, a result of their being far less aggressive and settling for far less efficient shots from beyond the perimeter.

In the last three seasons, Notre Dame has ranked amongst the nation’s 35 best teams in free-throw percentage. It has also ranked amongst the nation’s 50 best teams in 3-point percentage. That efficiency, as well a pristine assist/turnover ratio that has been top five in the nation two of the last three years, has bolstered the program to an ACC title and two runs to the Elite Eight.

But that exact formula for success has been what this team has missed the last four games.

Missing players like Colson and Harvey hurts, but as good as they are, their absences do not offer a legitimate excuse for Notre Dame’s recent struggles. The Irish have catapulted themselves into the national conversation through a system predicated on efficiency, good decision-making and ball movement. And it’s the lack of that system that has Notre Dame trending towards being on the outside of NCAA tournament consideration.

During its four-game skid, Notre Dame has shot just 29 percent from beyond the arc on an astounding 111 attempts — including 38 and 31 attempts in its last two losses. The increased number of 3-point shots also correlates with the lack of drives towards the basket and free throws I alluded to earlier and an increased number of turnovers — Notre Dame has as many turnovers as assists in the two games since Farrell’s return from injury.

Losing your best player often means other players need to step up to fill some of the production you lose. And the Irish have gotten that in many ways, particularly on the glass, where senior forward Martinas Geben has helped Notre Dame outrebound its opponent in six of its seven ACC matchups.

But offensively, players like Farrell and Pflueger have been pressing to replace Colson’s production and, as a result, have found themselves playing outside of the system that has built Notre Dame into the successful program it has been of late.

In order to keep itself in a position to be selected for the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame has to get back to what it does well.

There’s enough talent on the roster for it to do more than just compete in college basketball’s best conference — it can pick up a few wins if it gets back to playing efficiently, moving the ball consistently and making good decisions that lead to good shots.

Because if it doesn’t do that, Notre Dame will find itself on the outside looking in come March.