Notre Dame’s high-powered offense appears to now be paired with a peaking defense entering the NCAA Tournament.
V.J. Beachem said the Irish offense can still be “a little bit better,” but the senior wing highlighted the team’s defensive outings against Virginia, Florida State and Duke in last week’s Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
“Defensively the way we locked in, even against Duke they made some big time shots, but especially the first two games the way we locked in defensively was huge for us,” Beachem said.
In nine of the past 10 games, Notre Dame has held its opponent under its season scoring average, including Duke in a 75-69 loss in the ACC title game.
Notre Dame mixed its 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense during the three-game ACC Tournament, finding a groove its players believe can carry into NCAAs.
“I believe defense you can always fall back on,” said sophomore guard Rex Pflueger, one of the team’s top defenders. “Sometimes the shots won’t be falling, but your feet can always be moving. If you’re thinking like that, you can always give 100 percent on defense and give your best effort. If your offense isn’t falling you can have that to fall back on.”
Only four times since 2002 have the Irish finished in the top 60 nationally in defensive efficiency. This year’s team is currently ranked 58th, a significant improvement from last season’s group that finished 158th. Head coach Mike Brey has repeatedly called this his “best defensive team” he’s had in his 17 seasons at Notre Dame.
In the tournament, that could be crucial.
The Irish were able to upset Wisconsin in last year’s tournament with one of their best defensive efforts of the season. Notre Dame won the grind-it-out game 61-56, holding Badgers to just 0.88 points per possession.
A similar recipe would certainly help Notre Dame’s chances in this year’s tournament. Thursday’s opponent, Princeton, ranks 84th in offensive efficiency and turns the ball over on just 15.2 percent of possessions, which ranks 11th in the country.
Brey said associate head coach Rod Balanis would handle the bulk of the Princeton scouting this week. It also helps that Notre Dame’s veteran group has shown it can process different defensive game plans.
“Our defensive intelligence can really help us against a group like this and it has all year,” Brey said. “Even in our non-league stuff, we’ve been able to digest a scouting report and an opponent’s tendencies offensively and our main guys have been good at talking through it, switching it when we’ve had to.
“I feel like we can prepare well for this, and they have a little pride in sitting down and defending people.”
Pflueger said he felt Notre Dame’s defense hit another gear around the time the Irish went on a four-game losing streak. It’s no coincide that in three of those losses — to Virginia, Duke and North Carolina — that the Irish defense was statistically worse than its season average.
“We figured out that we have to play defense in order to get our offense going,” Pflueger said. “That showed in the ACC Tournament that we became more detailed in that aspect of the game. That led to more positive outcomes.”
Senior guard Steve Vasturia, who received one vote for ACC Defensive Player of the Year, said that pairing Notre Dame’s elite offense — ranked 16th in efficiency — and an improving defense is a great combination.
“We’re playing really good basketball on both ends of the floor. That’s a key,” Vasturia said. “Sometimes in the middle of the season, early in the season we weren’t playing well at the same time on both ends of the floor, but right now it’s great to see that on the defensive end and the offensive end we’re really clicking.”