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March 11, 2010
What's Gotten into Notre Dame?

by John Gasaway

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Notre Dame is fast becoming one of March's big stories, thanks to their new slower pace. The Fighting Irish have won five consecutive games, and tonight they'll face Pitt at Madison Square Garden in the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament. Better still, Mike Brey's team is currently projected as an 11-seed in the NCAA tournament. Not bad for a group that had NIT written all over it as a foregone conclusion just three weeks ago. What caused the turnaround?

That's a rhetorical question, of course. By now I'm sure you've heard about the Eureka moment Brey had while talking to assistant coach Anthony Solomon five games ago. ESPN's Dana O'Neil has the goods: "Luck of the Irish not because of luck."

Anthony Solomon, who played on the Virginia team that nearly stunned Phi Slamma Jamma Houston in the Final Four, started talking about the Cavaliers' famed run from lousy regular season to the brink of a national championship in 1984.

Brey, listening with half an ear, suddenly piped up.

"I said, 'Anthony, what was the score of that game?'" Brey said.

The answer--49-47--spurred a seismic shift in the Notre Dame basketball landscape that has taken the Irish from Big East afterthought to Big East beast.

"I went to sleep that night and just thought, 'We've got to do something different,'" Brey said of his Solomon-inspired epiphany. "We've had burn--where we run the clock in the final four minutes--in our playbook forever. So I just told the guys, 'We're going to extend burn to 40 minutes.'"

This is sweet basketball-tale deliciousness, up there on the same bleachers with Vance Walberg selling John Calipari on the dribble-drive motion offense over dinner, with salt shakers and sugar packets as baskets and players. (What is it with dinner and coaches? Don't they think anywhere else?) Moreover it's a tale with a number of no less delicious ironies, all of which center on that Virginia team. In 1983-84, head coach Terry Holland had a pretty strong staff in Charlottesville, one that included Jim Larranaga, Dave Odom, Seth Greenberg, and Jeff Jones. Any one of those guys could share some pertinent historical information with Brey.

First, luck may have nothing to do with Notre Dame's current run, but it had everything to do with Virginia finding itself facing Hakeem Olajuwon in the Kingdome that year. If you think I've been tough on New Mexico this year, keep in mind the '84 Cavaliers make this year's Lobos look like 2009-variety North Carolina.

A seven-seed in a 48-team field, the Cavaliers beat Iona by one in the first round (thanks to "a leaning jumper in the lane" by Othell Wilson with six seconds left), won in OT against Arkansas (Wilson again: "10-foot baseline jumper with four seconds remaining"), enjoyed a respite in the form of an eight-point win over Syracuse in the Sweet 16, and then beat Indiana by two in the regional final (five points and two rebounds by Kenton Edelin in the last 1:27). I'm sure "burn" is a fine strategy, but being kissed by the hoops gods so unmistakably and shamelessly is better still.

Second, that national semifinal game against Houston was even slower than Brey thinks. Much slower: It went to overtime. The game was actually tied at 43 at the end of regulation and, incredibly, that was with Virginia having rallied from six down with three minutes left.

Which brings us to the most important point: UVA could extend "burn" much more effectively 26 years ago than Notre Dame can now. There was no shot clock in 1983-84. It was introduced by the NCAA in a 45-second version for the 1985-86 season in part to keep plucky overachievers like Virginia from sitting on the ball all the way to the Final Four. The Cavaliers averaged just 54 points per contest during their amazing five-game run and, again, that was with ten extra minutes of basketball.

So wouldn't it be just too perfect if Notre Dame were inspired to perform some kind of incredible feat this March based on a mostly misunderstood historical precedent? Yes. Yes, it would be.

I don't know if it's specifically because they're holding on to the ball on offense, because Luke Harangody missed some time, both, or neither. But I do know that Notre Dame's defense has undergone a night-and-day transformation.

Does this mean the Big East will look like the Big Ten next year?
Notre Dame defense, first 14 Big East games vs. last five
Pace: possessions per 40 minutes; Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession

             Pace   Opp. PPP
First 14     65.8     1.13
Last five    56.9     0.97

Speaking of transformations, this is not a matter of a coach simply taking his foot off the accelerator. More like yanking the emergency brake so hard it flew off. Notre Dame is now locked in a pace cage match to the death with Wisconsin and Arizona State for the title of slowest late-season major-conference team.

Why is the Irish D so much better all the sudden? Partly it's because in their sassy new Big Ten look ND has improved noticeably on the defensive glass while committing fewer fouls. (Again, feel free to draw a Wisconsin parallel.) But far and away the largest single before-and-after difference here is opponents' threes. They used to go in (over the first 14 Big East games) 37 percent of the time. Now (last five games) they go in just 24 percent of the time.

Interestingly, everything else has stayed the same, even at the dramatically slower pace. Just like before, teams playing Notre Dame never turn the ball over and, indeed, opponent two-point percentage has actually gone up a hair. It pretty much all comes down to the threes.

Certainly I can envisage the Irish playing better and more locked-in perimeter D in games this slow, just like it makes sense that more minutes for a 6-7 athlete like Carleton Scott would have an impact. That being said, this is a huge drop-off and, historically speaking, opponent three-point percentage is the major statistical category that is least within a defense's control. Clearly this defense is vastly improved, but exactly how much of its miraculous transformation, O'Neil's headline notwithstanding, actually is luck after all? Only more possessions can tell us that answer, starting tonight against Pitt.

John also provides details about teams from 26 years ago on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

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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Winning is Fundamental (03/11)
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Around the Rim (03/12)

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