Nobody is better prepared to change gears in mid-season than Mike Brey.
Previously, injuries to players like Luke Harangody, Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin prompted an in-season metamorphosis into a more methodical approach.
Now, with the Irish offense starting slowly in game after game, the Irish head coach is encouraging guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant to hunt their shot from the opening tip instead of playing with a pass-first mentality.
“Since Marquette, one of the things we’ve talked about is Eric and Jerian not worrying about getting others involved too much early,” said Brey as he prepares his team for the regular-season finale at Louisville Saturday, followed by the Big East tournament in New York.
“Get yourselves involved. Hunt your shot. Score it. Be in an attack mode as much as you can. They were in the first half (against St. John’s). They took more shots. They didn’t make as many, but I think that set us up for the second half.”
Notre Dame’s 66-40 victory over St. John’s Tuesday night featured the backcourt tandem scoring a combined 36 points on 28 shots, including 8-of-11 from beyond the arc. Grant shot nine times in the first half and Atkins shot seven. They combined for another 12 shots in the second half, including 5-of-5 from three-point range.
Yet they still managed to combine for 15 assists.
“Their teammates know those guys make us go,” Brey said. “They’re still going to give the ball up, as evidenced (against St. John’s) in the midst of them attacking. But I think that really set the tone for us. We got out in transition and we pushed it. We were just kind of playing in the second half.”
For Atkins and Grant, it feels as if the shackles have been removed.
“I can go out there and try to score whenever I want now,” Atkins said. “So it’s less thinking about other people. It’s just playing your game and going for it right away.
“Everybody gets more confident when Jerian and I have it going. When we start well, it gets everybody calmed down and makes everything easier, especially for Jack (Cooley). He gets open because they really start playing (Grant and me) differently. Then down low, (Cooley is) really just by himself.”
Grant, who claims to have a score-first mentality by nature, is probably the greatest beneficiary of the altered approach.
“Me and Eric are excited about it,” Grant said. “I think we were focusing too much on getting our teammates involved instead of being aggressive and letting the game decide what happens.
“Now, when I’m getting in the lane or I see my shot, I can just take it instead of thinking maybe someone else is open. When your coach is telling you to be more aggressive, it’s definitely a burden off your back.”
It’s not like the Irish backcourt has been reluctant to shoot the basketball over the course of 40 minutes. In fact, the Atkins-Grant duo took a combined 30 shots against Connecticut, and 25 against DePaul (at Notre Dame) and Marquette.
But the tendency has been for a majority of those shots to come in the second half at crunch time. Brey wants his guards attacking the basket and letting it fly early to avoid digging a hole and chasing a halftime deficit. The Irish have trailed at halftime in four of the last five games, eight of the last 11, and nine of the last 12.
“I’ve always talked about that, but I’ve been stronger with it since Marquette,” Brey said. “You guys have to get your stuff. Eric shooting behind ball screens. Jerian hunting his shot…(Grant) was really confident (to shoot against St. John’s) because it’s coming from me stronger. Their teammates are saying, ‘We agree with coach. Go get your stuff. You guys ain’t selfish; we ain’t worried about that. You’re going to find us.’”
At halftime of the St. John’s game, Brey also encouraged the Irish to play a transition game against a team that normally prompts him to encourage patience, using the shot clock, and limiting the other team’s possessions.
“I love it,” Atkins said. “Pushing it is what I want to do. I want to get out and run, and it makes easy opportunities for everybody else as well as myself.”
“I’m definitely a guy that wants to put the ball in the basket first,” Grant said. “With us just having one passer in there in Eric, I felt like I had to be the passer and that second guy to get others involved. But now that coach has given me and Eric the green light to just be more aggressive first, it’s definitely going to help my game.”
According to Brey, what helps the games of Atkins and Grant should help the Irish as a whole as they head into tournament play.
“I really believe if we’re going to do anything special in March, those guys have to be attacking and going for it, hunting their shot, looking to score, running our team like the second half (against St. John’s),” Brey said.
“Eric and Jerian are just kind of running our team, telling guys when to ball screen, moving guys around. They didn’t need me at all (against St. John’s), which is the ultimate. Just step back and let those guys run it.
“I think that’s something we really need to look at the rest of the way. Those two guys, go get your stuff early. Don’t worry about getting other guys involved too much.”