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January 13, 2012

Irish paint 'the art' of defense

They aren't preparing to award the Notre Dame men's basketball team with the "clamp down" award on the defensive end. Those plaudits remain with the longer, more athletic teams in the Big East.

But in four conference games, the Irish (11-6, 3-1) have quietly emerged as a pretty decent defensive basketball team, although plenty of challenges await them as they get into the thick of the conference slate.

"I think our defensive chemistry is better than our offensive chemistry because we're still kind of learning each other offensively," said Mike Brey Thursday during his press conference to preview Saturday's home clash with defending national champion Connecticut.

"We're better defensively. We really understand how to help each other, how to rotate. We're keeping people, for the most part, to one and done. (Connecticut) will be a great challenge."

Notre Dame finished 15th (out of 16 teams) in three-point field goal percentage defense (.383) last season with scrappy defenders like Ben Hansbrough and the ever-present length of Carleton Scott.

Through four conference games this season, the Irish rank first in the conference, allowing just 20.9 percent of the three-point attempts (14-of-67) to fall.

"When we change the zone and chase a little bit, it speeds people up and maybe the rhythm of the three doesn't come as naturally," Brey said. "There's a defensive confidence developing with our group that we can get stops and get in great body position. Certainly the stops that we had to get against Louisville were great confidence builders."

Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida have shot a combined .411 from the field against Notre Dame, which ranks sixth in the Big East. Louisville has shot it the best from three-point range against the Irish, and that was just 4-of-13 (.307). Pittsburgh managed just 1-of-14 (.071) from beyond the arc while South Florida was 1-of-13 (.077).

The Irish may have come up with a different approach to defending the three-pointer after ranking last in the Big East in three-point defensive percentage throughout most of the non-conference schedule.

"I wonder about that stat sometimes," Brey said. "Our scouting report has said guys like (Louisville's Kyle) Kuric and (South Florida's Shaun) Noriega, you're hugging. We've actually come down in the post a little bit and said, 'We're going to give up that three as long as we rotate out to challenge.'

"Maybe that's better for us than hugging the three because we hugged it in our non-league."

Brey, however, won't be lulled into a false sense of security. Nine of the top 11 three-point shooting teams in the conference dot the upcoming schedule. Currently, Pittsburgh ranks sixth in the Big East in three-point shooting while South Florida is 12th, Cincinnati is 13th and Louisville is 14th.

"Maybe we're just guarding teams that can't shoot as well," Brey said. "You can confuse yourself with the numbers."

Yet overall, Brey has been pleased with the team's defensive performance since the 11-point loss to Indiana on Dec. 17.

"Our defensive effort in Indianapolis was pretty solid," Brey said. "We couldn't control (Cory) Zeller, but we did a pretty good job of giving ourselves a chance to win with our defensive positioning. That was a little bit of something to hang your hat on."

Brey cites senior Scott Martin - who has struggled offensively - for tying things up on the back end of the defense. He said that Martin averages taking at least one charge per game and called him Notre Dame's best defensive big man since Rob Kurz.

"I give a lot of credit to Scott Martin for being an anchor back there and a voice," Brey said. "I showed the (film clip to the team) where (Louisville point guard Peyton) Siva comes off (a screen) and we've got both Scott and Jack (Cooley) walling up.

"He kind of bounces off, and I paused it and said, 'That is art to me. That is great art that picture right there.'

"We're not going to be a big shot-blocking group, so we have got to rotate over, get outside the arc and let them come through our chest. Scott Martin sets a great tone."

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