So this is why the folks in Vegas live in large, luxurious mansions.
Prior to yesterday's destruction of top 25 Notre Dame, an Irish team with wins over Louisville, UNC, Duke, and Iowa dotting its resume, I was having a conversation with a few folks on the beat about how we just couldn't figure out why ND was only a one point favorite. Sure, ND's defense isn't great--it rarely is. But this was the nation's most efficient offense in the country, led by an NBA point guard who penetrates with ease, going against a Florida State defense that had not been able to get stops against anyone over the last 5 games.
So naturally, Florida State becomes the first team all season to hold ND under a point per possession (the Noles actually held ND under .90 points per possession) and blow the Irish out of the gym. In fact, Notre Dame's offensive output was so low, they slipped to third in the country in offensive efficiency.
Two questions popped to mind as I drove home from the game. How did this happen? Is this a sign of things to come, or a one game aberration?
The first actually is pretty easy to explain. For the first time since the win over Clemson (and perhaps the second half of the Miami game), the defense was energetic, in the right positions, rotated on time, and just generally executed. After the game, Leonard Hamilton singled out Devon Bookert as the game's unsung hero for his defensive effort on Notre Dame's star point guard, Demetrius Jackson.
Jackson is a fantastic play-maker and the engine that makes ND go. But the Noles, led by Bookert, played tremendous perimeter defense on him all day, harassing Jackson into four turnovers and disrupting many more passes.
But it wasn't just Devon. Dwayne Bacon was as active and crisp in his rotations as I've seen him this year. There was one play in the second half where ND whipped the ball around the perimeter and appeared to have an open guy in the corner, ready to bury a three. But Bacon moved his feet, kept his arms up, and deflected the ball out of bounds, forcing Notre Dame to reset and burn more clock. This kind of play simply hasn't happened very often this season.
After the game, Bacon credited it to watching film of the team's mistakes over and over to just keep on learning (you can see the entire interview below). And it did seem like he and Malik Beasley were doing less thinking and more instinctively reacting. But it also seemed like the effort and focus level was simply higher than it has been.
Boris Bojanovsky was a monster underneath, swatting six Notre Dame shot attempts, rebounding nine more, and just generally refusing to give up anything easy to the Irish. Coach Mike Brey singled him out after the game, stating that it was demoralizing for his team to see shot after shot get erased at the rim.
But this wasn't some magical new pre-game meal that Boris ate. This is what happens when he doesn't have to step out to the perimeter and make up for mistakes or slow rotations by other players. This is what happens when defenders funnel ball handlers into the space where Boris is supposed to occupy, waiting with outstretched arms to send the shots away.This is how Leonard Hamilton's defense is supposed to operate.
This brings us to the second question: is this performance repeatable?
Let's put one thing on the table off the top. FSU shot the ball really well from deep. Coach Brey said he had already moved on to thinking about the Irish's next opponent (Miami) with 15 minutes to go in the game, because FSU just kept hitting deep, contested threes. He knew it was over. When guys like Montay Brandon and Michael Saxton are hitting threes, it's a good shooting day. So, expecting 11-24 shooting (nearly 46%) from deep to be something that happens every game...well it won't.
But what about the defense?
Part of what made this an easier matchup for FSU is Notre Dame's rather small lineup. Similar to UVA, the Irish only have one rotational player--Zach Auguste--who's taller than 6'8. And while Auguste is a fine player, he's not a physical presence in the post the way Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Tonye Jekiri, or DaJuan Coleman are. For a Florida State team missing Phil Cofer and Michael Ojo, this is huge (pardon the pun). It allows FSU to put it's most offensively efficient lineups on the floor, without giving up size or physicality on defense.
Aside from the tangible roster benefits, there was a palpable sense of energy and increased intensity on defense as well. the Noles have shown this in spurts recently, for instance in the first half of Pitt and Va Tech, or the last 5 minutes of the GT game. But this was the first time we saw it for a full 40 minutes, with maybe the exception of the home Clemson game as noted before.
Hamilton attributed some of this to the enormous respect his team had for Notre Dame's shooters and their overall offense. But this is the ACC--lots of teams have great shooters. I am more inclined to believe it's the result of some combination of:
A. Some maturation by younger guys.
2. Increased minutes for players who appear to be more "glue guy" like in their mental approach to the game.
D. Seeing some shots fall early.
Garnet: Better understanding of the defensive system.
Dwayne Bacon expanded a bit on some of these ideas in the video below:
The favorable roster matchups are not something that can be consistently counted on, at least not in the ACC. Perhaps that changes next year if FSU is able to land one more recruit and get some guys back healthy.
But If maturation and better understanding of the system share some of the responsibility for this sudden improvement (after all, growth usually does come in spurts) hopefully that's a trend that can continue the rest of this season and into next.
Perhaps the real question is, if this growth is sustainable, is it too late to make a difference this season?
In addition to Dwayne, I also was able to have some good conversations with Boris and Benji: