From the top down, Notre Dame knows where it needs to improve as it heads into ACC play this weekend.
The Fighting Irish (9-3) had barely finished off a 73-56 win over Liberty Tuesday night to close the non-conference portion of their schedule before head coach Mike Brey diagnosed his team’s biggest area of emphasis.
“We have to be better defensively,” Brey said after the victory. “We’re going to have to make some improvement there if we’re going to get where we want to get to do some things in March.”
Notre Dame was effective enough against the Flames (3-12) Tuesday. Liberty hit just 22 of 58 shots from the floor, including a lowly 4 of 20 (20%) from behind the 3-point arc. The Irish were just 10th in the ACC entering the week in field goal percentage defense (68.7%), though.
“We can’t be lackadaisical on defense,” said forward Zach Auguste. “We have to be able to step-up and make those stops and get those rebounds and limit the second chance opportunities.”
Liberty outscored the Irish 17-14 in second chance points thanks in part to 12 offensive rebounds. More concerning to the Irish than opponent second chance points is the 3-pointers the Irish have allowed.
Notre Dame is giving up 3s at a 40% clip entering Saturday’s ACC opener at No. 5 Virginia.
The upside to the equation is first-year Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay spent the past six years as an assistant at Virginia. Notre Dame having McKay’s Flames as a final non-conference tune-up prior to Saturday’s ACC opener against his former team is “flat-out luck” as Brey put it, but it also gave the Irish a look at the same basic defensive principles the Irish will see this weekend in Charlottesville.
Notre Dame has room to improve across the board, but McKay still came away impressed with the Irish.
“They’re going to be a tough out in the league,” McKay said of the defending ACC Tournament champions. He was most impressed with Auguste, who finished Tuesday’s game with 13 points and 14 rebounds for his second straight and eighth overall double-double of the season.
“He’s a good passer,” McKay said of the senior forward, who also led the Fighting Irish with four assists. “He’s complete. You’ve got to have a good trap on him if you’re going to be effective.”
The other primary area of concern for Brey’s Irish is free throw shooting. They hit just 14 of 24 (58%) from the line against Liberty and are currently ninth in the ACC at 69% for the season. Brey knows his squad has to get better at the line with games against the Cavaliers and Pittsburgh, both 10-1 entering Tuesday’s play, among Notre Dame’s first four ACC games in January.
“It’s going to be a long, cold winter if we’re not better there,” Brey said.
Good defense and good free throw shooting are staples of every good basketball team and the Irish were better at both with last year’s team that finished in the Elite Eight with a 32-6 record. Good defense and good free throw shooting help make a team drought-proof when offense is hard to come by, and it has been hard to come by at times this season for Notre Dame.
The Irish saw a 15-point lead evaporate when they were outscored down the stretch in their 80-73 loss to Indiana not quite two weeks ago. They didn’t hit a field goal in the final 4:30 of the first half and went about six and a half minutes without a field goal midway through the second half in Tuesday’s lopsided win.
Notre Dame’s best wins to date are over Iowa (9-3) and Illinois (8-5) after letting a big feather in its cap get away against Indiana (10-3). Things are about to get a lot tougher with 18 ACC games to play over the next two-plus months.
“The real bullets start flying now,” Brey said Tuesday. “Here we go.”
Time to buckle-up.