At the beginning of this college basketball season, the belief of many talking heads and Irish basketball fans alike was that Notre Dame would surely suffer due to the loss of All-American forward Luke Harangody and do-everything point guard Tory Jackson. Well, eight games into the season those beliefs have been put on hold for the time being because of the emergence of tough, balanced, defensive-minded (yeah, you read that right) Notre Dame team.
How has Notre Dame stormed out of the blocks for their best start since the 1973-74 season? In my opinion, there are three aspects where Notre Dame has greatly improved.
Under Mike Brey the Irish have been known as a team with a high-scoring offense and an apparent indifference to the defensive side of the ball. Now? While the Irish can light up scoreboards with the best of them still, they are getting key stops and doing so when shots aren't always falling. In an Old Spice Classic game against Cal over Thanksgiving weekend, Notre Dame shot 1-20 from three point range. In years past this would have spelled doom for Mike Brey's squad. This game, Notre Dame responded by giving up only 5 points in the first half to a more athletic Cal team (and gave up only 44 for the game). This hasn't been something we've seen in the Mike Brey tenure.
How has Notre Dame changed this mindset so quickly? When looking at Notre Dame's lineup, you won't find uber-athletes or many physical specimens. But Notre Dame does have length. Notre Dame's starting lineup boasts heights of 6-3, 6-8, 6-8, 6-7, and 6-8. They bring guards off the bench who are 6-4 and 6-1, and a big man that is 6-9. While they lack superior height on the interior, the length at the 2 guard and the small forward can be very difficult to deal with and will be beneficial in Big East play. The past couple years we have started two guards that have been under 6 feet, which posed big matchup problems on defense. Now, the tide has turned and we are a matchup problem for someone else.
Another reason for the defensive turnaround is toughness. While we may never see another player as tough as Tory Jackson in a Notre Dame uniform, the teams didn't have an overall toughness when he played. Ben Hansbrough, Ty Nash, and Carleton Scott really set the tone for this squad and you are seeing it throughout the whole team now. This actually is a nice lead into my next point.
Another reason Notre Dame has been able to get off to this great start? Rebounding. I think this is a toughness issue as well. The Wisconsin game was one of my favorite games in recent memory. In recent years, this was a game Notre Dame would have lost by giving up an offensive rebound and getting frustrated with the pace of the game. Notre Dame embraced the pace and out-toughed Wisconsin. Late in the game with the score tied Ben Hansbrough missed a free throw, but Tim Abromaitis was able to get position and get an offensive rebound and a put back to give Notre Dame the lead after being down double digits in the second half.
Notre Dame has had some GREAT rebounders in the Brey tenure. This team has no GREAT rebounders. However they are a great rebounding team. Everyone attacks the glass. It's not Luke Harangody, Ryan Humphrey, or Troy Murphy grabbing every rebound. It's Carelton Scott getting one and then Ben Hansbrough, and maybe Scott Martin get's the next one. Rebounding is a total team effort from this squad. When looking at the box score from the Wisconsin game I couldn't help but smile. Every single starter for the Irish had at least 6 rebounds, with Abro leading the way with 9. Not saying we will get 6 rebounds from all five starters every game but this is definitely something that should help us throughout the season.
Lastly, Notre Dame has offensive balance. Gone are the days of standing around on offense watching Luke Harangody, Russell Carter, Chris Thomas, or Chris Quinn go to work. Notre Dame has scoring threats at all five positions and they aren't afraid to share the ball. All five starters average double figures and they are once again in the upper-echelon of the country in assists per game. Teams can't go into games keying on one player offensively because they options are numerous for this Irish team and everyone is unselfish enough to not have to dominate the ball every night. (Not saying that Gody and others we selfish, I just think the offense was always catered to their skills.) The Irish are versatile. They can play sow, they can play fast, they can win in the pain and they can win on the perimeter. So go ahead, try to stop one guy or make them play a certain way. They can beat you a lot of ways.
With all of this said, Notre Dame has not played the toughest of schedules yet. While Georgia, Cal, and Wisconsin were all tough tests, the Irish will face much stiffer competition in upcoming games, including tonight against Kentucky in Louisville. Hopefully we will see these new trends continue as the competition gets tougher.
On to Kentucky
Tonight, Notre Dame faces a young and athletic Kentucky squad coming off a defeat at the hands of a disappointing North Carolina team. Kentucky's athleticism will be a tough test for Notre Dame. I think we will see the Irish employ a zone against Kentucky's dribble-drive motion offense, utilizing their length and forcing the Cats to beat them with outside jumpshots.
Kentucky will put a lot of pressure on the Irish defensively. We could see freshman Eric Atkins more time at the point to take pressure of Hansbrough and because he is a better ball handler. We may see Mike Brey implement the "Burn" offense to slow the game down and limit Kentucky's possessions.
My Completely Bias and Optimistic Prediction
ND 71 - UK 65