I was bothered by what I watched on Saturday/Monday. Not because I expected Notre Dame to beat Virginia or Duke (I didn’t), but because they didn’t even put up a fight. Falling behind 26-10 and 26-7, and losing at home by 20+ in consecutive games is embarrassing for a program that has consistently hung with, and beat, the ACC elites.
Four years ago yesterday, the Irish knocked off Duke to go to 20-2. Of course, an ACC title followed. So did a deep run in March, as a serious national championship contender. Four years later, and the Irish are licking their wounds at 11-10, with one ACC win – a three-point home win over a bad Boston College team.
Reasonable minds believe that this is simply a down year because of all the injuries, and that next year will be better with everyone back and healthy. They may be right. However, I think this take is a bit simplistic given what we have seen from the Irish the entire year, and the current state of the roster. Let’s dig in.
The 2015 Recruiting Class
After falling just short of a Final Four in 2015, the future appeared to be incredibly promising. The thought was that Brey would be able to parlay those runs into recruiting classes that would keep the Irish on the path towards hanging a Final Four banner in Purcell Pavilion. What followed was an incoming freshman class that unfortunately has set the program back a couple years.
2015: Rex Pflueger, Matt Ryan, Elijah Burns
Obviously Ryan and Burns provided little production before bolting for Vandy and Siena. Rex came in as a Top 100 recruit, with the hope that he could eventually step into the role that Pat Connaughton perfected over four years. There were highlight videos of Rex winning high school dunk contests, showing that the athleticism was certainly there.
Through 3+ years, Rex has been less like Connaughton and more like Derek Manner: a solid defender, but significantly challenged on offense. There is no question that Rex’s best two offensive games of his career came in his final two before his knee injury. Against UCLA and Purdue, gone were the step-back 18-footers and forced three-pointers that had little hope of going in, replaced by driving and getting some open looks for his teammates. Was this sustainable? I don’t know.
How did we go from having Kentucky on the ropes, to four years later, having a roster that just might get to the tournament? Obviously it’s more than just the 2015 recruiting class.
The Offense is Offensive
It’s a line I have used before, but it remains accurate. Notre Dame is averaging 64.5 points per ACC game, and at times they look like they are running an offense that would be installed for a fourth grade catholic school team.
After re-watching the first half of the Duke game, it is apparent that the offense is broken. In 32 first-half possessions, the Irish scored on 12 of them:
*Four buckets on offensive rebounds
*Three drives resulting in baskets
*Two isolation triples
*A Hubb three after a kick out from Mooney from the post
*A Mooney bail-out three after the ball stayed outside the arc for 25 seconds
*Mooney FTs after slipping a screen and a nice over the top pass by Gibbs
The majority of the possessions involved a double ball screen at the top, resulting in either a pass to the wing 30 feet from the basket, or continuous dribbling on the perimeter. For example, on the first ND possession of the game, the ball did not penetrate the arc until eight seconds were left on the shot clock. A Hubb drive/miss…a Duke triple…and the rout was on.
On drives that resulted in shots in the first half, the Irish went 2 for 14. The only person to actually drive the lane and kick to a shooter was Goodwin, who found Hubb for a wide open three that he missed. Dumping the ball to Mooney in the post also produced a couple good looks from three. But the majority of the half involved waiting too long to get the offense started, a whole lot of standing around, and drives and difficult shots by small guards against length.
Now, let’s discuss what we didn’t see from the Notre Dame offense in the first half:
*Anyone running off an off-ball screen
*Gibbs or Hubb driving into the lane and kicking to a shooter for an open shot
Brey preaches and strives for offensive flow. Without movement, of off-ball players and the ball, there is zero flow. Instead, we see isolation offense from players that are not capable of finishing at a high percentage, and for whatever reason, are not willing or capable of finding others for open looks.
I’m not sure what has happened to T.J. Gibbs, but his regression has been a major factor in the 1-7 ACC start. After a promising sophomore year, Gibbs’ FG percentage is down 7%, his 3FG percentage is down 6%, and his FT percentage is down 12%.
In the five games since missing the BC game with an illness, T.J. is 13-52 from the field (25%) and 6-27 from deep (22.2%). Perhaps he isn’t yet at full strength, but it’s more likely that his struggles are due to his changing role in the offense.
Brey had success last year letting Gibbs initiate the offense and having Farrell play more off the ball. He’s tried it again this year, with Hubb handling the majority of the ball-handling. The result: Gibbs has struggled mightily.
Moving him off the ball was supposed to create more open looks; however, Gibbs is routinely shooting threes off his own dribble or forcing difficult shots up in the paint. Against Duke, there were very few off-ball screens to help free up T.J. Instead, he stood at a wing waiting for Hubb to pass him the ball so he could try to make an isolation play.
Additionally, Gibbs (#80 in the 2016 ESPN Top 100) doesn’t seem to have the explosiveness to be a legitimate stud in the ACC. Carsen Edwards was 88th in that class, and has turned into a first-team All-American.
Comparison to 13-14
There are obvious parallels to the 13-14 season: 1) upperclassman misses the entire conference season (Jerian/Rex); 2) freshman point guard struggles to produce (Demetrius/Hubb); 3) junior makes significant improvement in expanded role (Connaughton/Mooney); 4) getting to 70 points is extremely difficult.
But there’s one enormous difference: Jerian, Demetrius and Connaughton all were drafted. Not sure anyone on next year’s roster will hear their name called in a future NBA Draft. Laszewski or Durham…maybe.
Oh, that 13-14 team also beat a Top 10 Duke team at home…
Losing Rex, Carmody, and Durham for stretches has provided a convenient excuse for a team that was going to struggle to make the tournament this year at full strength. A dramatic improvement in 19-20 will not be because of Rex or Carmody – it will be due to T.J., D.J., or one of the freshmen using the next ten games to figure out if someone can be “the guy.” Otherwise, next year might not look too different.