How Anthony Solomon Is Engineering Notre Dame’s Defensive Restart
SOUTH BEND — To understand just how much control new associate head coach Anthony Solomon has over Notre Dame’s defensive reboot, look no further than the floor of Fighting Irish’s practice gym at Rolfs Hall.
Head coach Mike Brey is no fan of a practice court dirtied by extra lines. Yet here is his program’s practice setting, festooned with white tape.
The lane lines are extended toward center court. There are two horizontal tape lines just beyond the three-point arc that stretch sideline to sideline. A pair of boxes are on each wing and an “X” in each corner. It feels like a classroom, which is the goal.
“Those lines on the floor are all kind of defensive lines,” Brey said. “Slo said the first day of practice, ‘Coach doesn’t like a lot of lines on his court.’ I said, ‘Whatever we need to do for them to visually understand.’
“In the spring, I put the lines on before Slo got here officially when we were conspiring long distance. I took the returning guys up on the railing and said, ‘Look down on the court. This is what these spots mean.’”
Notre Dame’s offseason is one big instructional course in defense. Solomon, hired in this spring for his third tenure with the program, is the teacher. His formal title is associate head coach, but he’s the unofficial defensive coordinator tasked with turning a major weakness into something that offers more resistance.
A season ago, the Irish ranked 203rd nationally in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com — their worst finish in the 20-year KenPom era. Only one of the 346 Division I teams that played last year forced turnovers at a lower rate. Notre Dame was 271st in scoring defense despite playing at a slower-than-average pace.
Simply put, the Irish need a pulse on that end of the floor. Solomon wants to go even further and make it a strength.
“His biggest thing is, ‘Notre Dame is going to be a defensive team,’” senior guard Cormac Ryan said. “We’re going to come out and set the tone and dictate what our opponents are going to do.”
Tuesday’s peek behind the curtain at Solomon’s project offered some insight into his methods. Notre Dame will play “no middle” defense, Brey said, a popular tactic in college basketball. Reigning national champion Baylor and 2019 runner-up Texas Tech use it. The objective is to funnel everything to the sidelines and baseline.
“We really have to keep it out of the middle and push it toward the baseline,” Brey said. “Through the years we’ve influenced middle, even when Slo has been back on his other tours of duty. But we’re really committed to that and our help side.”
Solomon, though, puts just as much of his focus on core defensive principles as X’s and O’s. He wants Notre Dame to be capable, prideful and willing on-ball defenders. He’s trying to instill intensity and urgency, two traits not often detectable in the Irish’s defense last year. He preaches communication.
“You’re going to have one person on the ball, and the other four have to be covering, communicating and being in positions to help their teammates,” Solomon said. “We always say we don’t want them to think they’re on an island by themselves.
“But you have a responsibility to guard the ball and not allow your opponent to just drive directly by you. We’re working on that.”
“We can’t let guys on the other team think they’re going to bully us or when they see Notre Dame, think they’re going to get their career highs against us,” senior guard Prentiss Hubb added . “We’re trying to emphasize and get in our heads that we’re going to stop everybody. Our mentality is to keep the guy in front of us.”
No detail is too small for Solomon. How to align your feet and arms in an off-ball defensive stance? He covered it. How to fight through a screen? That was addressed, too. So were other intricacies of ball-screen defense, a weakness a year ago that’s critical to playing effective no middle defense.
“You get through a season and 90 percent of the teams you play against are going to have some ball-screen attack,” Solomon said. “You have to be great at defending ball screens and be committed to getting control of that segment.”
He has also harped on rebounding. Defensive stops mean less if they’re too infrequently followed by defensive rebounds. Notre Dame’s last game of 2020-21 was a case study in it.
North Carolina built a 50-point lead in an eventual 101-59 ACC Tournament Irish loss in part because it grabbed 61 percent of its missed shots. Notre Dame’s first-shot defense in the first half was satisfactory. It didn’t matter because the ball usually ended up back in the Tar Heels’ hands — and in the hoop after an easy put-back or kick-out jumper. On the season, Notre Dame finished 247th in defensive rebounding rate.
“We’ve really tried to emphasize the ability to rebound the basketball,” Solomon said. “I just got here, but they know we need to improve upon that area and ball-screen coverages.”
Irish players have primarily heard his voice reminding them, and less of Brey’s. That will change when preseason practice begins in October, but for now, Solomon is the most talkative coach in practice and the hands-on instructor.
Brey, meanwhile, roams the sidelines with pen and notepad in hand. He chimes in occasionally, talks to players individually and listens. It’s by design.
“One of the things I said to him was, ‘You need to be the voice this summer,’” Brey said.
Brey is the good cop, he joked. Solomon and fellow assistants Ryan Humphrey and Antoni Wyche have the leeway to be the bad guy with tough love.
All told, Solomon is a new voice. And welcomed change.
“It’s a stark difference,” Brey said. “We needed that. That was the mission, and not just starting in the spring. My mind was thinking about this since we were an [assistant] down from November on. We have to come back with something and really shake it up.
“I feel like we’re in that position now and our kids have received it great.”
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