Notre Dame basketball is off to their best start in Mike Brey’s 15-year tenure as head coach. Monday night’s 71-70 road win in North Carolina moved the Irish to 15-1 overall and 3-0 in the ACC. With another big game against Virginia coming up Saturday night and then Duke coming to South Bend at the end of January, now is the time to ask whether this Notre Dame team is ready to compete with the big boys of the ACC.
The start is impressive, but issues regarding toughness linger. I should stress that I don’t refer to mental toughness or effort, but “basketball toughness” issues that pertain to defense and rebounding. Notre Dame ranks 161st in the country in defensive efficiency (a stat that adjusts for tempo, so teams that play at a quick pace with a high volume of possessions aren’t penalized). They play a four-guard offense that has an obvious effect on their ability to hit the boards.
Zach Auguste, the 6’10” junior that’s Notre Dame’s sole inside player does an admirable job, averaging 15 points/6 rebounds per game. But that’s not nearly enough to be a really good rebounding team. Notre Dame averages 35 rebounds per game. Duke, Virginia and Louisville, the Power Trio of the ACC this season, all average more.
The defensive ranking is even more problematic, because two of the ACC’s best—Virginia and Louisville—are elite teams on the defensive end, each ranking in the top five. Duke is pretty good, ranking 17th. Notre Dame is nowhere in the ballpark.
And to make matters worse, the Irish schedule strength is 344th in the nation—only seven teams in the country have played a lower grade of competition. Thus, Notre Dame has had problems rebounding and defending against a soft schedule. Shouldn’t we be concerned about what happens when the competition level increases?
Perhaps, it’s certainly a red flag to keep an eye on. But before this turns into a requiem for Notre Dame’s ACC title chances, let’s consider the following…
*They beat Michigan State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, a 79-78 overtime win at home. The Spartans are justifiably the poster child for Big Ten toughness and Notre Dame was able to win.
*In the first three ACC games—against Florida State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina—the Irish held their conference opposition to 41% or less from the floor. None of the three are great teams, but all—particularly Carolina—are pretty good, and that’s a strong defensive outing. Well-coached teams improve, especially on defense. Brey is a good coach and it’s very likely his team is getting better in this area.
At the end of the day, Notre Dame isn’t going to defend or rebound its way to a conference championship or even into serious contention for one. But if they do those things “well enough” there will be a chance for the Irish to shoot their way to one.
The four guards all shoot the ball exceptionally well, and they have the range from three-point land. Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton are each seniors and combine for 31 ppg. Grant is the one least likely to hit a trey, but he distributes the ball and shoots 51 percent from the floor. Connaughton doesn’t have the height, but he averages eight rebounds a game. Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vastuna each hit 40 percent or better from behind the arc, the benchmark of a lights-out three-point shooter.
Will the Irish win the ACC title? Probably not. Duke and Virginia are both unbeaten and Louisville only has one loss. I suspect Notre Dame is the likeliest of those teams to lose a game they shouldn’t because shots just don’t fall on a certain night. But this is a Notre Dame team that appears to be getting better and has a chance to hang with the Blue Devils, Cavs and Cards into late February and early March in this conference race.
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