This is a relatively quiet week for college basketball. There aren’t many marquee matchups between high-profile teams. There aren’t all that many games, period. But of the games that have taken place since last Sunday, arguably no result was more surprising than Notre Dame’s 73-69 loss Wednesday night to North Dakota State.
Let’s be clear: North Dakota State is a good team. Ranked 76th in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, the Bison are an explosive offensive team pegged as the favorite to win the Summit League in the league’s preseason poll.
They’ve also lost two of their hardest road games (at Saint Mary’s and at North Dakota) and, before Wednesday night, had yet to beat a major conference opponent this season. The Bison doesn’t possess anywhere near the talent or athleticism that Notre Dame does, nor did they boast a resumé suggesting they could beat the Irish on their home floor. Notre Dame opened as an 8.5-point favorite.
The loss would be less concerning had Notre Dame not already dropped a home game to Indiana State in November. At the time, the loss to ISU – which snapped the Irish’s 48-game non-conference home winning streak in November – could be written off as an aberration. The Irish, ranked no. 21 in the preseason Associated Press Poll, had lost only one game to a good Indiana State team (one ranked 67th on Kenpom.com).
Mike Brey's team appeared to have righted the ship when they pushed Big Ten contender No. 23 Iowa at Carver Hawkeye Arena in a five-point loss, and while they didn’t look overly impressive in consecutive home wins over Delaware and Bryant, it was hard to foresee Notre Dame losing another nonconference game at home against a lesser opponent. Because it did lose – and because it trailed the Bison most of the game – it seems fair to ask a simple question: What’s wrong with Notre Dame?
It’s hard to pinpoint a perfect answer, but one obvious problem area is perimeter defense. The Irish are giving up an average of 1.02 points per possession, good for 131st in the country. If that number holds up over the course of the season, it would be the most PPP any of Brey’s teams have allowed since 2003, as far back as Pomeroy’s website has tracked efficiency statistics.
More concerning for the Irish is the three-point shooting success opponents have had so far. Notre Dame has allowed teams to hit 38.6 percent of their three-point shots, the 294th-best mark in the country and well above the national average (33.9). Not coincidentally, the Irish struggled mightily to guard Indiana State’s and North Dakota State’s three-point shooters. The Sycamores and Bison shot 55 and 50 percent from deep, respectively, in their wins over Notre Dame.
The Irish have also struggled to protect the rim. They’ve allowed 1.11 PPP on 73 post-up situations involving passes, according to Synergy Scouting Data. The Irish have also blocked just 12.6 percent of shots at the rim, according to hoop-math.com, and 10.1 percent of all shots, while allowing opponents to score 49.2 percent of their points on two-point field goals (233rd in the country) and shoot 46.8 percent on those attempts (115th).
On Wednesday night, Bison forward Marshall Bjorklund scored 26 points and posted an offensive rating of 150, converting 11 two-point field goals, many of which came in the post. Bjorklund’s primary defender, Irish forward Garrick Sherman, was largely ineffective – which is why it was so puzzling to see Brey give Zach Auguste, an active defender, zero minutes of playing time.
Inconsistent shooting is another issue Notre Dame has run into. It hit just 36.9 percent of its field goal attempts against the Sycamores, 35.7 percent against the Bison and scored 0.97 and 1.05 points per possession, respectively, well below its season average of 1.12.
In previous seasons, the Irish have been able to use their hyper-efficient offense -- Brey’s teams have ranked in the nation’s top-32 in offensive efficiency in all but two years dating back to 2003 – to overcome defensive shortcomings. They have enough offensive firepower to follow that blueprint this season, but on nights when they endure shooting slumps, such as the Indiana State and North Dakota State games, the Irish need to play at least passable defense.
If Notre Dame can’t improve defensively, expect the Irish to lose at least one more game before conference play begins on January 4. They’ll face Indiana at the Crossroads Classic this Saturday, followed by a matchup one week later against no. 2 Ohio State at Madison Square Garden. It’s probably too early to begin thinking about NCAA Tournament resumés, but it’s hard to ignore the fact the Irish have zero notable non-conference wins to speak of. If they can’t beat the Hoosiers or the Buckeyes in the coming weeks, the Irish will enter conference play with plenty of ground to make up.
There’s still time to fix things; the Irish can and should be able to make the defensive adjustments necessary to a) win one of their next two games, b) compete for a top-five finish in the ACC and c) make the NCAA Tournament.
That doesn’t mean it’s too early for Irish fans to panic. Statistical support for this post was provided by Kenpom.com.