It’s Not Linear, But Notre Dame Basketball's Defense Is Taking The Right Steps, Highlighted By Final 10 Minutes At Duke
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It’s Not Linear Progress, But Notre Dame’s Defense Taking The Right Steps

Mike Brey set aside part of a recent film session to make a how-it-started, how-it’s-going contrast.

Notre Dame’s coach showed about seven clips from early-season games of the Irish playing defense and defensive rebounding – or more accurately, not doing either. He then pulled up the same number of possessions from games in Notre Dame’s current 5-2 stretch. There was actual defense. Real rebounding. Intensity, urgency, and energy. A sense Notre Dame actually wants to play defense.

“It’s glaring, the individual stances, individual responsibility,” Brey said of the differences. “Being able to compete one-on-one every day in practice, carrying that edge over, we just have to stay in that practice plan.”

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Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball
Notre Dame picked itself up and held Duke in check in the final 10 minutes of Tuesday's win. (ACC)

No, Notre Dame’s defense on a two-game road trip wasn’t impenetrable or outstanding. The Irish (8-10, 5-7 ACC) had to score 90 points to beat Duke on Tuesday. They allowed 82 in a Feb. 6 loss at Georgia Tech. Neither number inspires happy thoughts.

But dig into them – particularly the Duke performance – and there are some good moments that underscore the overall defensive improvement from the season-opener to now. It hasn’t been linear, but it is an overall trend. In both games, the Irish generated a couple key late stops. No one will mistake their defense for the 1960s Celtics units, but the Irish aren’t a cure for woeful offenses either.

The last clip on Brey’s positive defense highlights was junior guard Cormac Ryan taking a charge in the Duke game. Ryan drew two of them, but the one Brey described sounded a lot like a first-half collision with 6-9 Duke sophomore forward Matthew Hurt. Ryan stood outside the lane, eyes on his man. When he saw Hurt driving from the opposite wing, he sprinted about 15 feet, planted himself and met Hurt just outside the restricted arc.

Bang. Notre Dame ball.

“Just an unbelievable play,” Brey said. “He has done that. We’ve gotten some stances out of [junior guards Prentiss] Hubb, [Dane] Goodwin and [Trey] Wertz. It really has helped Hubb. He has been more locked in defensively and more attention to detail.”

All of that, save for Ryan’s charge and two steals, was largely absent in the first 30 minutes at Duke. The Blue Devils hung 50 first-half points on Notre Dame. Between the opening 20 minutes at Cameron Indoor Stadium and the second half at Georgia Tech, the Irish allowed 97 points. A leak sprung, and for about 50 minutes of combined game time, Notre Dame had no answers for fighting the oncoming torrent.

When it was finally patched in the closing stretch at Duke, the results flipped instantly. Notre Dame held the Blue Devils to 16 points on their last 16 possessions. Duke was 7-for-20 from the floor, committed a pair of turnovers and did not attempt a free throw.

“Competing, competing, they hear me say compete and compete,” Brey said. “We’ve gotten physically and mentally tougher overall. As the teacher, to see a group grow in that area, become men and not boys, that’s rewarding. I don’t know what the end game is, but it’s rewarding.

“The physical and mental toughness had to happen. Maybe it doesn’t happen until life flashes before your life flashes before your eyes. That sure as hell has happened to us.”

Notre Dame spent most of the final 10 minutes in a 2-3 zone defense. All told, the Irish played zone for 19 possessions and allowed scores seven times. Neither man nor zone has been consistently good for them, with the former ranking in the ninth percentile of efficiency nationally and the latter in the 27th percentile, per Synergy Sports. Changing between them, though, has given opponents some pause. Duke was the latest.

“I thought the last 10 minutes, our zone really helped us,” Brey said.

Zone might be more frequent in Notre Dame’s next game, a Sunday evening home meeting with Miami (6 p.m. ET, ACCN). The Irish’s 73-59 Jan. 24 road win over the Hurricanes featured their highest zone usage rate this season. Notre Dame played it on 49 possessions and allowed points on just 13 of them. The strategy made sense against a team that entered the game shooting 27 percent on three-pointers.

“We got to it quickly and we rode it hard,” Brey said. “They had not played very well against zone, the metrics and analytics and everything leading up said stay in some zone. We ended up staying in it almost the whole game. it’s something you keep handy. They didn’t shoot it well and turned it over a little bit. But they played Duke [on Feb. 1], Duke got into their matchup zone, they made seven threes and cut them up.”

Miami (7-11, 3-10 ACC) remains the ACC’s worst offense in conference games, per KenPom. The three-point accuracy has gone up slightly to a still-poor 29.4 percent. The Hurricanes remain an aggressive, driving offense that brings an important piece back who missed the first meeting.

Point guard Chris Lykes is likely to play his first game since suffering an ankle injury Dec. 4. The 5-7 senior led Miami in scoring (15.4 ppg), assists (2.4 apg) and three-point shooting (38.1 percent) last season.

“He kind of keys them,” Brey said of Lykes. “He can get into the lane and is really a dynamic guy.”

Notre Dame’s defense won’t walk away from the challenge.

(Miami 7-11, 3-10 ACC) at Notre Dame (8-10, 5-7)

When: Sunday, Feb. 14 at 6 p.m. ET

Where: Purcell Pavilion

TV: ACC Network

Radio: Notre Dame Basketball Radio Network

Series history: Notre Dame leads 13-12

KenPom prediction: Notre Dame 75, Miami 66

Other notes

• Notre Dame leading scorer Nate Laszewski continues to lead all qualified Division I players in effective field goal percentage (75.5 percent). He is ninth with a 64.6 overall field goal percentage and third with a 53.3 three-point percentage. He’s averaging 15.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

• Notre Dame is the only team in the country with two players shooting at least 60 percent from the field. Center Juwan Durham’s recent string of impressive games has taken him to that mark. He is 28-of-34 (82.3 percent) in his last four outings.

• Miami’s leading scorer is sophomore guard Isaiah Wong, who is averaging 17.4 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game. He is shooting 43.8 percent from the field. Notre Dame held him to 6-for-17 shooting in the first meeting despite his 16 points. Since then, though, he is 11-for-22 on three-pointers.

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