Night Line: Notre Dame Keeps Winning With Balanced Offensive AttackPosted by EJacoby on February 23rd, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
The Indiana Hoosiers have been praised throughout this season for having one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the country. But as IU has begun to sputter of late, a different team in Indiana is proving to be similarly efficient with a variety of offensive options. By thumping West Virginia on Wednesday night, 71-44, Notre Dame has now won nine straight games after yet another versatile offensive attack that was too much for the Mountaineers to handle. Mike Brey’s boys in South Bend remain tied for second in the Big East and are a dangerous matchup thanks to all the different options they can throw at opponents.
The Fighting Irish began this season with much riding on their fifth-year senior star Tim Abromaitis, who was expected to make a run at Big East Player of the Year. But when the forward suffered a season-ending ACL injury on November 25, the entire dynamic of the team changed. It took plenty of bruises — the Irish were just 8-5 in the non-conference — but this team has figured out how to play as a group without Abromaitis. While only six players on the team average 20 minutes or more per game now, each one is capable of being the star on any given night. In fact, during the current nine-game winning streak, five different players have led the team in scoring. Coming into tonight, guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant and forward Jack Cooley were all averaging between 12 and 13 points per game on the year, while emerging swingman Pat Connaughton was averaging 12.6 per contest in his last five games. The other starter, forward Scott Martin, also averages 9.1 PPG in Big East play, giving the Irish a full lineup of capable scorers.
On Wednesday night, Notre Dame simply shot lights out in disposing of the ineffective Mountaineers. The Irish shot an incredible 61.4% from the field, including hitting 9-16 from behind the arc for a 27-point blowout. Four different players scored in double figures, led by Grant’s 20 points on 8-11 shooting, and sharpshooting reserve Alex Dragicevich added eight points as well. The Irish had 17 assists to just nine turnovers, once again showing an ability to share the ball and attack from a variety of angles. The team’s 1.40 assist-to-turnover ratio during Big East play ranks 11th-best in the nation during conference games. In Big East games, they’re third in the conference in true shooting percentage (53.3%), second in three-pointers made (105), and fourth in overall offensive efficiency (106.4). Without a go-to guy, the team has still excelled through strong ball movement and perimeter shooting.
But the Fighting Irish aren’t only about offense. Wednesday night saw the team hold its opponent to a paltry 31.5% field goal percentage, in line with the kind of defense it’s been playing throughout conference play. Notre Dame leads the Big East by giving up just 58.5 points per game in conference play. Much of that number stems from the fact that the team plays at the second-slowest pace in the Big East (60.7 possessions per game), but the advanced stats confirm that the Irish are still solid on ‘D’. They sport a 96.4 defensive efficiency, good for fourth in the conference, and allow a 46.2% true shooting percentage, the best in the Big East. Opponents have made just 59 total three-pointers at a 25.3% clip, both ranking #2 in the conference defensively.
At some point, this crazy winning streak is going to come to an end and critics will point to the lack of depth, go-to scoring, and elite talent on the team as a cause for concern. It almost happened last weekend, when the Irish got down by 20 points in the first half to Villanova before storming back for an overtime victory. The problem with counting this team out remains that it is so balanced offensively, and the guards Grant and Atkins are great at dribble penetration to find open teammates. In addition, Brey is doing an outstanding job, as always, and just might be deserving of a second straight National Coach of the Year award for the work he’s done. The Irish lack explosive athletes that make highlight dunks or swat shots into the second row, but they have a cohesive group of guys playing collectively on both ends of the floor. At this point, doubt Notre Dame at your own risk because it is a team that has the ingredients to stay consistent into March.