The beginning of the end for Notre Dame

Notre Dame may have beaten Wichita State to punch its ticket to the Elite Eight, but the team now faces the buzzsaw that is Kentucky.
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By Joe Diglio

Fred VanVleet did not go gentle into that good night. For that he can hold his head up high.

Notre Dame led Wichita State by eight with 3:40 left in the first half, but the Shockers guard scored all seven his team’s points to close out the half, bringing the deficit to three at the break.

Twice he stole the ball from Demetrius Jackson in the backcourt, leading to four easy points. And when his team was down double digits in the final minutes, he was still attacking as though they were tied.

It was a respectable, albeit futile, effort. Notre Dame simply gave Wichita State more than it could handle Thursday night, advancing to its first Elite Eight since 1979 with an 81–70 win. VanVleet couldn’t have done much more offensively; he finished with 25 points and three assists against zero turnovers. His team’s problem—as is often the case for Notre Dame’s opponents—was on defense. The Fighting Irish shot 55.6 percent from the field, and on several occasions gave VanVleet a dose of his own medicine.

What do I mean by that? VanVleet was absurdly good on the pick and roll last week, generating 24 points per game off of it in his first two NCAA Tournament games per DraftExpress. However it was the Shockers who were getting burned on the pick and roll Thursday night.

Check out this play. Bonzie Colson posed a threat as he rolled to the basket, so VanVleet pinched in to help.

But he left Demetrius Jackson open for three and Jerian Grant found him. Knowing Tekele Cotton, he very well may have picked off a pass to Colson, but VanVleet didn’t want to risk giving up an easy look inside, so he sacrificed the three-pointer.

Even when then Shockers covered the pick and roll relatively well, though, the Irish were beating them.

VanVleet fought through this particular screen pretty well, and Ron Baker came down to help Darius Carter on Colson, creating a two-on-three situation for Notre Dame. Pat Connaughton was actually wide open for three to Jackson’s left if he looked, but he was concentrated on getting a closer look, instead threading the needle to Colson.

Eventually the Fighting Irish started uses slip screens instead of a standard pick and roll, which also drew the defense in. Here, Evan Wessel helped on the cutting Zach Auguste, leaving Steve Vasturia wide open.

While Wichita State allowed easy looks from three, Notre Dame did a good job of closing down shooters. The Shockers went 3-for-18 from long distance, and many of those were contested.

The most impressive thing about the Fighting Irish’s defense was how they made a well-balanced Wichita State game limited offensively. The Shockers’ only reliable options were VanVleet taking guys off the dribble and Carter in the post. It’s something to be proud of, but it’s also a big concern looking forward. You see: Notre Dame’s next game is against Kentucky, that team full of tall, penetrating guards and giant, skilled post players.

Not to discredit Carter, who developed into a solid player for Wichita State this year, but if the Irish can’t stop him inside, how are they going to stop the Wildcats? Zach Auguste averages 2.5 fouls per game, but I would be surprised to see him surpass that number in the first half. Mike Brey will have to keep him in to stand any chance against the Wildcats. With V.J. Beachum’s role shrinking as the season has progressed, Auguste is the team’s only rotation player taller than 6’5”. And you can point to Notre Dame doing a good job against big teams like North Carolina, but keep in mind that the difference in height between Connaughton and, say, Brice Johnson, is the same as the difference in height between Johnson and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Notre Dame’s style of play is in no way similar to West Virginia’s, but the Fighting Irish will have a similar size disadvantage. That the Wildcats literally doubled the Mountaineers’ score is probably all you need to know, but outscoring them 34–12 in the paint and 16–5 in second-chance points doesn’t bode well for the Fighting Irish.

As West Virginia so eloquently displayed, if you try to apply full-court pressure and run on the Wildcats, they can turn your strategy on its head. The Mountaineers, known for creating offense out of their defense, had fewer fast-break points (13–2) and points off turnovers (16–11).

It seems logical to try and score quickly against Kentucky before its shot blockers can get into place. However the Wildcats’ opponents have an effective field goal percentage of just 42.4 percent in transition, the lowest in the country per hoop-math.com.

Instead the Fighting Irish would be wise to slow things down (Brey loves any excuse to bring out the burn offense) and jack threes. Although it’s true that the Wildcats haven’t played a team that shoots the ball as well as Notre Dame, there’s no way for the Fighting Irish to truly prepare for what they’re about to face. Their dream lives on thanks to Thursday night’s win, but their nightmare has only just begun.

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