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Notre Dame's Turnaround: How Have The Irish Done It?

Notre Dame's season was dead in the water a month ago, but now they have won six straight. As they prepare to host Rutgers tonight, now is a good time to ask: is this Irish surge sustainable?

A month ago, Notre Dame's season was basically over, at least as it pertained to NCAA Tournament qualification. Thanks to an early suspension, followed quickly by a season-ending ACL injury, the Irish had gotten only two games, 76 minutes and 28 points from star Tim Abromaitis, and following a seven-point road loss to Rutgers, they were 11-8, 3-3 in the Big East. They ranked a woeful 94th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings.

Six games later (five against possible NCAA Tournament teams), they are 17-8, 42nd according to Pomeroy, and they have gone straight from out of the discussion to easily in the Field of 68. Mike Brey is now receiving Coach of the Year consideration. A team with no star and little quickness is now the hottest in the Big East. How did this happen? And is it sustainable?

Anytime you pull an upset of a highly-ranked team, your fans (and some analysts) will proclaim the win a turning point, a sign of bigger and better things. And honestly, the rationale is justifiable -- you just watched a team, with your own eyes, play at a high enough level to take down a really good team. Player A, who had been in a shooting slump much of the season, caught fire! And did you see the way Player B was rebounding? Of course, most of the time an upset is simply a flash in the pan, a hint at high upside before the inevitable regression back toward the mean.

In Notre Dame's case, however, their Jan. 21 win over No. 1 Syracuse was apparently organic enough, a product of both solid (but unspectacular) play and minimal luck (other than the simple fact that Fab Melo was suspended, of course), that it could be replicated. And there's no question that, following that huge win, their season has turned.

So what has changed for Notre Dame? Quite a bit. The Irish are still doing the same things well and poorly, and they are basically the same team. But Bray appears to have shrunk the rotation a bit, and Notre Dame has both slowed down the tempo and doubled down on their strengths.

Notre Dame, Before And After

First 19 Games
Last Six Games

Opp. N.D. Opp.
Pace (No. of Possessions)
Points Per Possession (PPP)
Points Per Shot (PPS)
2-PT FG% 49.3%
3-PT FG% 32.2%
FT% 70.4%
True Shooting % 53.5%

N.D. Opp. N.D. Opp.
Assists/Gm 14.3
Steals/Gm 5.4
Turnovers/Gm 10.1
Ball Control Index (BCI)
(Assists + Steals) / TO

N.D. Opp. N.D. Opp.
Expected Off. Rebounds/Gm 12.0
Offensive Rebounds/Gm 10.5
Difference -1.5
Net Rebounding/Gm

The major differences:

  • Notre Dame games, slow before, are now the slowest in the country. For the season, Wisconsin's 58.9 possessions per game are the fewest in the country; for the last six games, Notre Dame has averaged a full possession lower than that. The Irish were victimized earlier in the season in faster games against teams like Missouri and Gonzaga, and they have been bound and determined not to let that happen again.
  • Despite high-quality competition, the Irish are shooting better, and their opponents are shooting worse, especially on the perimeter. With this small a sample size, this could be partially based on luck, but in looking at the changed distribution of minutes -- sophomore wing Jerian Grant went from averaging 34.4 minutes per game to 37.8, freshman Pat Connaughton from 21.6 to 26.7, bigs Jack Cooley and Scott Martin from a combined 57.9 to a combined 70.8, and, on the flipside, Joey Brooks from 16.6 to 2.8 and Tom Knight from 10.9 to 4.8 -- it appears Bray has found the lineup he wants to ride, and it would stand to reason that this particular set of players would put together a better defensive effort.
  • The Irish have improved on the glass. The difference is subtle -- they have basically gone from a 30-percent offensive rebounding rate and 68-percent defensive rebounding rate to 31 and 70 percent, respectively -- but pulling down an extra board or two per game has helped in tight wins over UConn (Notre Dame was plus-3 in terms of expected rebounds) and West Virginia (minus-2).
  • Strangely, Notre Dame has basically forfeited the ball control game. They are taking fewer risks on defense, which has led to both fewer fouls (down from 14.3 to 12.8) and fewer steals. Opponents almost never turn the ball over, but they also don't find any good shots either.

From a player perspective, there has been one primary shift beyond simple minutes: Jerian Grant is now The Man. In Abromaitis' absence, no player really stepped up; through 19 games, every player in the primary eight-man rotation had a Usage Rate (the percentage of possessions utilized, for better or worse, by a given player) between 17 and 21 percent. In the last six games, however, Grant's has jumped from 20 percent to 24 percent. A high Usage Rate is not, by default, a good thing -- it could mean you are just shooting a lot more with little benefit; and in Grant's case, his shooting percentages have dropped (his Effective Field Goal percentage has slipped from 52.9 percent to 41.1 percent), but he is getting to the line more (from 4.3 free throw attempts per game to 6.0) and making his free throws (89 percent), and by running the offense through Grant, players like Jack Cooley and the less-used Brooks and Knight have been able to hit the offensive glass more effectively. Plus, with more defensive attention focused on him, Grant has been more able to find open shooters; his assist total has risen from 4.7 per game to 5.3 despite more shots and a slower overall pace.

So is this type of improvement sustainable? It certainly seems like it. One becomes wary of a sudden surge in any major department, but in this case, Notre Dame's strengths seem to have gotten a little stronger, their weaknesses a little weaker. Brey has found a rotation that suits him, and perhaps most importantly, the schedule potentially eases up a bit. They host Rutgers (granted, the last team to beat them) tonight, face winnable road games versus Villanova and St. John's in coming weeks, and finish the season with a home game against Providence. The winning streak will likely come to an end, at the latest, at Georgetown on Feb. 27, but they are not likely to forfeit their recent gains.