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February 16, 2011
Poll Position
Notre Dame's New and Improved

by John Gasaway

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By now there seems to be a pretty strong consensus that Pitt is the best team in the Big East. At 23-2, Jamie Dixon's team is currently ranked No. 4 in both major polls and is projected to be a 1-seed in next month's NCAA tournament. But if the Panthers are really the best the rugged Big East has to offer, that still leaves an unanswered question. Who's No. 2?

Well, how about the team that beat Pitt on the Panthers' home floor? Meet Notre Dame.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Notre Dame? They never do anything in March, right? Right. In fact ND hasn't made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2003. Since coming to South Bend in 2000, Mike Brey's record in the tournament is 5-6.

I'm well aware of the recent history in South Bend, believe me, and I'm not ready to proclaim the Irish as my pick to win the national championship. But I do see some key differences between this group and past Notre Dame teams that flamed out early in the tournament. Let's take a look.

You have to admit Brey knows how to score points
When you think of coaches that traditionally put a strong offense on the floor, names like Mike Krzyzewski, John Thompson III, or Bill Self might come to mind. But if the past five seasons are any indication, Mike Brey definitely merits inclusion on that short list. Look at it this way. Over the four-year career of Luke Harangody, the Irish averaged 1.10 points per possession in Big East play. Now this season, their first without the big guy, ND is averaging 1.11. Brey just keeps rolling along.

This very good offense is getting even better.
On the season Notre Dame ranks fourth in the Big East in terms of offense, behind Pitt, Marquette, and Villanova. That fourth-place ranking, however, is a little deceiving. During their current seven-game winning streak the Irish offense has been blazing through the conference to the tune of 1.23 points per possession. The winning started on January 19 against Cincinnati, when 6-7 senior Carleton Scott returned from a hamstring tear. Since then ND has overpowered opposing defenses with a lethally efficient attack.

Ben Hansbrough is clearly the featured scorer. When he's been on the floor during this current winning streak, the 6-3 senior has personally accounted for 29 percent of Notre Dame's shot attempts. A bit like his older brother used to do at North Carolina, Hansbrough excels at getting to the line -- a nice skill for an 81 percent free throw shooter to have. But if the Irish were nothing more than their leading scorer they'd be much easier to defend. Instead, Brey spaces the floor and forces opponents to choose between Hansbrough, Scott, Tim Abromaitis, and Scott Martin -- efficient scorers all. And in the rare event that one of those four misses a shot, Tyrone Nash is there to crash the offensive glass.

This defense has improved.
Bear in mind the way ND's scoring points this defense doesn't have to be the second coming of Texas or anything. Still, it is true that for years Notre Dame's been handicapped by a defense that's well below the Big East average in terms of effectiveness. No longer. In fact the Fighting Irish D has been right at the league average -- allowing 1.04 points per possession -- over the current seven-game win streak. And in those seven wins this combination of average defense with an outstanding offense has allowed ND to outscore its opponents by 0.19 points per trip. Brey's teams never excel at forcing turnovers, and even in good times this defense is still allowing opponents to make a very high percentage of their threes, but those two factors have been offset by some excellent interior D. Notre Dame's last seven opponents have made just 40 percent of their twos.

But is this team deep enough?
Last weekend when Ohio State lost at Wisconsin, there were some observers who said the Thad Matta's team was hurt late in that game by its short rotation. Maybe that's true, but if so Notre Dame should be in trouble sometime soon as well. Put it this way: Irish fans are very accustomed to seeing Hansbrough, Abromaitis, Scott, Martin, and Nash on the floor together. All five players have logged more than 75 percent of the available minutes during this win streak, with Hansbrough's playing time eclipsing the 90 percent mark over the past seven games. For what it's worth I tend to think that, in all but the most extreme cases, depth-related concerns are often overstated. (I used to hear a lot about how Duke was doomed every March because they wore their players out. Funny how you don't hear that anymore.) But if you're inclined to worry in this direction, I'm obligated to inform you that Notre Dame does fit the profile.

Notre Dame's winning streak is likely to end soon, as the Irish will play road games at West Virginia, Providence, and Connecticut in the next 18 days. (Not to mention the ensuing Big East tournament.) But even with a loss or two still to come, the Irish look like a team that can actually make some noise in March. Yes, I just used "Irish," "noise," and "March" all in the same sentence. Believe it.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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The Shootaround (02/16)
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Two Teams, One Bid: (02/16)

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