The first glimpse that many people had of Notre Dame this season was an 87-58 blowout loss against Missouri in Kansas City just before Thanksgiving. Fighting Irish star Tim Abromaitis played in that game against the Tigers, but soon afterward he was lost for the season due to a knee injury. The common assumption was that Mike Brey and his young team were in for a rebuilding year.
That assumption still looked good as recently as mid-January. Even with a thrilling double-overtime win at Louisville to their credit, Notre Dame was just 3-3 in the Big East at that point. If anything, the .500 record painted a picture that was a little too rosy. The Irish were coming off back-to-back losses and trending in the wrong direction. Brey's team was beaten soundly at home by Connecticut 67-53, and then fell on the road at Rutgers by the score of 65-58.
Then Syracuse came to South Bend on January 21. The Orange entered that game 20-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation, but Jim Boeheim's team left with a 67-58 loss, courtesy of the Irish. That game proved to be the turning point in Notre Dame's season.
The win over Syracuse tipped off what is now an 8-0 streak, one that has lifted ND into a second-place tie in the Big East standings with Marquette. Heading into tonight's game against West Virginia in South Bend, the Irish are nationally ranked and projected as on-track for a No. 6 seed in the NCAA tournament by Joe Lunardi. If you saw all of this coming in mid-January, take a bow.
What happened? Why is Notre Dame so much better all of the sudden, and can they keep it up? Here's my take.
There's no contradiction between real improvement and real luck
People tend to get bent out of shape when discussing whether teams are "good" or simply "lucky," when of course there's no logical conflict between the terms at all. Look at Notre Dame.
Brey's team has obviously improved dramatically since they were sitting at 3-3 in the Big East, and the numbers prove it. In their first six conference games the Irish were outscored by 0.03 points for every possession they played. During their current win streak, on the other hand, ND has been 0.16 points better on each trip than the other team. A scoring margin that healthy marks a team as a clear No. 2 to only Syracuse in this year's Big East, and that's exactly what Notre Dame looks like right now. Your eyes do not mislead you.
At the same time, it's also true that this particular very good team has had some bounces go their way. Over their last eight outings, the Irish have gone 5-0 in games decided by single digits, up to and including Saturday night's 74-70 win in overtime at Villanova.
A record that exemplary in nail-biters means Brey's players are garnering the usual praise for being clutch and poised in tight games. Such praise is fine as far as it goes. After all, we can all cite examples we've seen where players really are effective in the closing moments of hotly contested games. The salient point as it pertains to Notre Dame, however, is simply that Mike Brey does not have a monopoly on such players. No coach does. Instead, what happens is that your team soon encounters an opponent who -- guess what? -- is also clutch and poised in tight games. And at some point even the Irish will face such a team.
Good perimeter shooting is a coach's best friend
Once again this season Notre Dame is what I like to call a POT: a perimeter-oriented team. During the win streak, over 40 percent of their shot attempts have been launched from beyond the arc, making the Irish far and away the most three-happy offense in the Big East. You're probably assuming that ND's perimeter shooting over this run of success has been really good, and your assumption would, for the most part, be correct. Brey's team has hit 37 percent of their threes over their last eight outings. That's not spectacular, but it's certainly a big step up from the 26 percent shooting they recorded from beyond the arc in their first six Big East games.
Sophomores Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins get most of the minutes in this backcourt, and therefore have record most of the attempts from outside this season. The unsung heroes during ND's hot streak, however, have been contributors like 6-5 freshman Pat Connaughton and 6-7 sophomore Alex Dragicevich. Connaughton is hitting a downright Steve Kerr-like 48 percent of his threes in Big East play, and Dragicevich has chipped in with 38 percent shooting over that same stretch. Even Scott Martin, whose season total for three-point shooting is under 25 percent, has become highly selective with his attempts and as a result is draining 38 percent of his treys in conference play.
All of the newfound perimeter accuracy has been good news for Jack Cooley, who's been the picture of consistency inside the arc all year long. On the season as a whole Cooley's making 62 percent of his twos, and when we look at Big East play only that number doesn't budge. Cooley was giving his team the potential for good offense all along, he just needed his teammates to start hitting some shots from outside. As of mid-January, that's exactly what's taken place.
Notre Dame's offense this year marks a radical departure
This is the first season in recent memory when Mike Brey does not have a Big East Player of the Year-level star who's using a disproportionately large share of the offense's possessions and launching a disproportionately large share of the offense's shots. Last year that star was Ben Hansbrough (or perhaps the stars, plural, were Hansbrough and Abromaitis), and in the seasons before that it was Luke Harangody. Game-planning for Notre Dame back then involved "stopping" that star player.
That's not the case this year. This is a remarkably balanced offense, one where Cooley, Grant, Atkins, and Martin all account for virtually identical shares of the shot attempts during their respective minutes. To the extent that conference rivals benefit from their previous knowledge when scouting an opponent, the rest of the Big East must be somewhat nonplussed when they prepare for this latest version of the Irish. They sure do present a different look this season.
It also doesn't hurt that the Irish are playing D
Defense hasn't always been Notre Dame's long suit during the Brey era, but the Irish don't need to make any apologies on that front in 2012. During the eight-game win streak ND has held opponents to just 0.94 points per trip, an effort which if extended over the entire Big East season would make Notre Dame's the No. 2 defense in the league, behind only Georgetown. Offenses facing this latest and greatest version of the Irish find it surprisingly difficult to record makes inside the arc, and Brey's men have also been outstanding when it comes to chasing opponents off the three-point line.
In addition to tonight's home game against West Virginia (an opponent battling for their NCAA tournament life), Notre Dame has a tough challenge upcoming when they visit Georgetown next Monday night. But Brey's team would appear to be in good shape to finish the Big East season with 13 or possibly even 14 wins. That didn't look likely when this same team was being annihilated by Missouri last November. Give Notre Dame credit. They've had some breaks, but they've put themselves in a position where they can make the most of them.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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