As soon as the Wichita State Shockers defeated the Kansas Jayhawks, we reached out to One Foot Down to learn a little more about the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Joe Schueller was gracious enough to help answer a few about the Irish, because we had burning questions that needed answers.
1. Welcome back to the Sweet 16. A big part of why you all are here is your offense. What makes it so great and what about it will make it hard for Wichita's excellent defense to shut it down?
Oh, it is so great to be back. Although, we'd be foolish to put our feet up on the furniture and act like this is normal for us. Before 2003, you have to go all the way back to 1987 to find Notre Dame in this position.
I know the running narrative on the Irish is that they don't defend, but in this recent winning streak, which includes hoisting the ACC championship trophy, ND has been consistently holding people below their season average KenPom adjusted efficiency numbers. They're locking down when they need to and going on big runs to erase deficits and put away games. Runs come from defense, and this team is finally acknowledging the importance of getting stops -- even if it does run contrary to popular opinion about them.
That being said, Notre Dame does boast the 3rd highest rated offense in Pomeroy's ratings. This edition of the Fighting Irish does a lot of things past Mike Brey teams have done well: they don't turn it over, they pass the ball, and they shoot a great percentage from deep. What this team has over ones of the past is balance. There are 5 legitimate scoring threats on the floor at all times. They can beat you in a variety of ways. They leverage a lot of pro-style sets and open the floor with a deadly screen-and-roll game. For all the hype about ND's three point shooting, they beat Duke in the ACC semi's with only 2 made 3's on the night. They saw the Blue Devils were vulnerable to dribble penetration and took it to them. This is one of the first Mike Brey teams that can adjust and find different ways to score against a variety of defensive approaches.
2. I was watching the Butler game the other night. Man, I still can't get over that block at the end of regulation. But you know what I noticed? If you put another 10 years on Mike Brey and a little more gray hair, he would start to look a lot like Bo Ryan. Think about that for five minutes. Now give me you take on why that would either be a good or bad thing.
Poor Zach Auguste's turnover at the end of regulation probably took a few hairs off of Mike Brey's head and turned a few others gray. Of course, it came to light later that Coach Brey was dealing with topics of far greater importance than basketball.
I grew up in Wisconsin, and went to UW camps in the late 80's coached by Bo Ryan and others. I witnessed his rise up the UW system behind Dick Bennett. He's a coach that loves fundamentals, values passing, and despises turnovers.
From a basketball perspective, I'm not sure fans of the Irish would notice a huge change. Ryan's swing offense is a bit more structured than what Brey has typically run, but with Frank Kaminsky this year, the Badgers have gone with a less structured offensive pattern that looks more like ND's. Of course, Brey made adjustments to his usual approach to take full advantage of his own All-American.
Even off the court, we'd find similarities. Ryan tends to come off as a little more of a cynic, but has a very sharp wit. Brey is incredibly warm and personable but also has a pretty sharp sense of humor. Ryan tends to be a more intense on the sideline with his team and with officials, where Brey tries to mix in some more "wink and a smile" motivation to keep his guys loose and work refs.
There's a lot of positive sentiment for Brey at the moment, so I'd have to call it a bad thing if we lost him for anyone. However, if some rift in the time/space continuum left Bo Ryan on our bench, we'd certainly make it work.
3. When I look at Jerian Grant's KemPom page, I see so many great "similar" players: Ryan Boatright, Shabazz Napier, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson, Tyler Ennis. But obviously he is special all on his own. Describe Grant for someone who hasn't seen him, and tell us why these comparisons don't do him justice.
Pomeroy does some wonderful things with the numbers, but leadership is something that is much tougher to quantify outside the W/L column. Jerian Grant took it on the chin last season. He felt the weight of last team's disappointment and took a lot of the blame. The manner in which he's re-engaged with this program has been nothing short of remarkable.
Early in his career, we knew we had something special with Jerian. There were moments of pure brilliance. Just take a look at this 2013 performance vs. Louisville to understand Grant's potential. Unfortunately, there were enough, "Jerian, NO!" moments with ill-advised shots and turnovers. One of our writers to referred to Grant as a basketball mad-scientist. Everyone could see he had an incredible basketball IQ and tremendous physical talents, he just needed a lot of concentration and willpower to harness his prodigious talent.
This year, Jerian has mastered his craft. Even when his shot isn't falling, he knows how to get other guys shots. He takes care of the ball, he defends in crunch time, and sometimes, he just decides he's getting to the rim. We felt he had a very strong case for ACC player-of-the year, and I took some time to compare his game to James Harden's. Harden gets his Rockets a lot of corner 3's and is incredibly difficult to keep away from the rim. Grant has had the same impact for ND this year and will hear his name very early in the NBA draft because of it.
4. Be honest with us, being in a conference is kind of nice. What about playing in the ACC has prepared Notre Dame for the NCAA Tournament better than the Behemoth East ever did?
It is certainly nice for basketball. I was a student at ND during the final few years before we joined the Big East, and those were truly the doldrums of ND's basketball existence. Joining the potent Big East was the shot in the arm that got Notre Dame basketball moving again. Matt Doherty, in his brief stint, made some noise with Troy Murphy in the league. Mike Brey built on that momentum and constructed a program that was perennially in the top half of one of the toughest leagues in the nation.
Unfortunately, for all the regular-season success the Irish found in the Big East, they struggled in NYC and never made a single Big East final in MSG. By the end of their time in the Big East, it was almost as if Brey's guys were playing against both history and their opponent. Far too often, the grind of the Big East tournament and disappointment of a semi-final loss loomed like a hangover as the team made their way in to the big dance. Relying primarily on jump shooting and only 1-2 primary scorers made those teams novel and effective in conference play, but couldn't deliver NCAA tournament success.
Obviously, our first go in the ACC didn't turn out so well. In fact, it looked a lot like Butler's first run through the new Big East. This year, however, the Irish flipped the script. Notre Dame went 7-2 on the road in the ACC and found wins in some of the toughest arenas in the country. Of course, there has been some discussion as to whether or not the "top heavy" ACC was truly a great conference this year, so I'm not sure the challenge of ACC league play is any greater than in the old heyday of the Big East. This season, Notre Dame owns road and/or "neutral"-site wins over each of the 4 other regional semi-finalists from the ACC. That has to give the Irish a lot of confidence headed in to the weekend.
What is different about the ACC vs. the Big East is the variety of playing styles. You have bruising teams, you have running teams, you have defensive teams, you have balanced teams. Notre Dame saw a lot of different styles and approaches over their 18 game ACC slate, and came out of that at 14-4. They proved to themselves they could play in hostile environments. They believe they can take any number of different punches and come back swinging. That belief culminated in a magical 3 game run in Greensboro, the heart of ACC country, where the Irish took down Duke and UNC in succession to win their first ever conference title. Now, with the "can't make the second weekend of the dance" monkey off their back, the Irish are playing with house money and a ton of belief.
5. Looking back at your losses, the only team that really got to you was Duke, and that was after you had already beaten them once. What did the Blue Devils do that really gave you fits?
Back in January, the Irish managed to keep Coach K stuck on 1,000 wins a little longer, and I think there were many in the Duke program who took that personally. I also believe there was a sentiment that ND was "lucky" with some fortunate breaks down the stretch in that game in South Bend.
That, of course, led to a fired up Duke squad and the Cameron Crazies cranked up the insanity meter to 11 that afternoon. The Irish have stunk all year in early afternoon tips, and once the snowball started rolling downhill in Durham, there wasn't much Brey could do to slow it down. I've yet to see the Blue Devils defend like they did that day in Cameron.
Jerian Grant and Quinn Cook were high school teammates and good friends. Cook's defensive intensity in that game was marvelous, and he largely took Grant out of the game. The sophomores Notre Dame rely on so heavily behind Grant and Pat Connaughton had never been in that sort of environment, and I think they got caught up in the swirl of it all.
That 30 point loss was what a lot of the traditional ACC media used to pick against ND in the ACC tournament and served as an asterisk over the ND season until Notre Dame was able to beat Duke in the ACC semi-final. It was ND's 3rd win in 4 ACC meetings with the number one seed in the South region.
6. You guys did really poorly in free throw defense this year. I mean, come on, you let opposing teams shoot 71.1 percent at the line? What is lacking in your distraction game?
7. You don't go to your bench much, and you went to overtime in a late game against Butler. Any chance you all might be a little tired going into this one?
When it comes to his senior leaders, Mike Brey believes "you can rest when you're dead" (or maybe when you've graduated). Grant and Connaughton sat 8 minutes each over the 3 nights of the ACC tournament. Demetrius Jackson hasn't played less than 37 minutes since the Clemson game to end the regular season. All of our guys are used to big minutes. We're 349th in the country in bench minute percentage, so our guys will welcome the couple of days rest to get ready for this one.
8. Who is the X-Factor in this game, the guy that is going to make the whole state of Kansas groan?
Steve Vasturia is a 6'5" sophomore who just makes plays. When the Irish need a big bucket or a critical steal, Vasturia steps up time and time again. Steve has been that way all along, but the ACC tournament was his coming out party, and the 20 he put up against Butler were no fluke. Vasturia is also Notre Dame's best position defender. While Demetrius Jackson is the man with the ball pressure, Vasturia is asked time and time again to stay in front of the opposition's best scorer.
9. OK, You make it through the gauntlet. Now let us know who will get to play again Saturday along with the score.
We were just discussing on OFD how fan bloggers can't win with predictions. If you pick your team, you're a blind homer. If you pick against them, you lack faith.
From my perspective, the best case scenario is that Notre Dame takes great care of the ball, and then uses effective ball screens to get WSU's defense moving and rotating. That leads to open shots on the perimeter and a steady dose of Auguste dunks on screen-and-roll action with Grant and Jackson.
The worst case scenario is the emotional weight of the week and jumpy nerves play in to WSU's defensive pressure. If ND allows the Shockers to get early turnovers and transition baskets, it could cause ND's shooters to tighten up. If Marshall can let his defense clog the middle with no fear of the 3, it gums up ND's offense and we go stagnant for long stretches of the game.
The most likely event is a mix of these two things. There will certainly be stretches where WSU's defense dictates the game, and the Shockers can turn that defense in to offense. I also think ND will go on a few runs of their own. From a numbers perspective, the Irish have been holding opponents at or slightly below their season adjusted offensive efficiency. At the same time, Notre Dame has scored more points per possession than their opponents' season adjusted defensive efficiency. If those trends continue, and this game goes somewhere around 68-69 possessions, it is going to be a tight one. In a tight game, I tend to favor guard play, and I think Jerian Grant is going to be the best player on the floor. 81-80, Notre Dame survives and advances.
Thanks again to Joe for taking the time to answer these. I think we can all say we know a lot more about Notre Dame after this. Catch everything Irish at One Foot Down, and on Twitter at @onefootdown.