Some college basketball fans like to dig into statistics-field goal percentage, 3-point percentage, free throw percentage, points-per-game, rebounding margin, assists, turnovers, assist-to-turnover ratio and their defensive counterparts-to analyze why a team is having success, but there are times when you have to go beyond the numbers.
Some teams simply know how to win. Others don’t.
It’s safe to say Notre Dame is among the former.
At 16-2 overall, the Irish are alone at the top of Atlantic Coast Conference standings after three weekends of play, at 5-0 the only unbeaten after their win at Virginia Tech and Florida State’s loss at North Carolina Saturday.
Their combined margin of victory in the five wins? Just 23 points. That works out to an average win of under five points a game. Their widest margin of victory in league play is their seven-point win over Louisville. Their closest call is a one-point win at Pittsburgh in their conference opener.
And in each of their five wins, they have trailed or were tied in the late going and rallied to win, three times when they were on the road.
Coach Mike Brey talked about their comeback success after the Irish outscored Miami 10-1 over the last three minutes to pull out the 67-62 victory after the Hurricanes had rallied from an 11-point deficit of their own from down 50-39 to up 61-57.
“Miami made a great run and we knew we were going to have to make some big plays to escape,” Brey said. “That’s four games in a row we’ve made plays in game situations, had big defensive big defensive plays to win a game.”
Make it five in a row.
Against Virginia Tech, with the Irish up three points on forward V.J. Beachem’s jumper with 49 seconds left, Tech guard Justin Robinson was letting the ball roll up the floor after the inbounds pass so the clock wouldn’t start-a common practice by the trailing team in late-game situations.
But Irish guard Matt Farrell wouldn’t have that. He dived for the ball at midcourt, outfought Robinson for the ball, picked it up and drove for the basket, passing to teammate T.J. Gibbs at the last second for a layup that gave the Irish a five-point lead with only 46 seconds remaining. Considering the Irish missed four free throws in the remaining time, it may have been the play that decided the game in Notre Dame’s favor.
“We kind of believe when we’re in those kinds of situations we’re going to figure out,” Brey said. “It certainly is a little bit of a psychological advantage for us right now.”
In their other league wins, the Irish were down 67-62 at Pittsburgh with less than three minutes in regulation but outscored the Panthers 6-1 in the remaining time to send the game to the extra period. They outscored the Panthers 10-9 in overtime for the 78-77 win.
Against Louisville they were tied 68-68 with two minutes left and won 77-70 on the strength of a 9-2 run. And against Clemson, they were tied 64-64 with just over three minutes remaining and finished with an 11-6 spurt for the 75-70 victory.
“It’s amazing,” Brey says of his team’s mastery of the closing minutes. “Our fan base is all on heart medication.”
Why the success late in the game?
After the latest win, Brey cited his team’s “mental toughness.”
Stability and experience are two factors behind that.
Brey has started the same lineup for all 18 games with three juniors and two seniors answering the call. Seniors Steve Vasturia and Beachem and junior Bonzie Colson were starters on last year’s Irish team that made a run to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. Vasturia was a starter for the 2015 Elite Eight club that lost to then unbeaten Kentucky by two points in the regional championship game.
Offensive skills are another. The Irish shoot the ball at a 47 percent clip and until going only 12-of-38 from long distance their last two games were over 40 percent from 3-point range for the season.
“Those guys are so proficient offensively they can come down the floor and shoot from 30 feet and it’s a good shot,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “Or they can drive to the basket and they’ve got a contested layup and it’s still a good shot.
“Most teams don’t have the offensive skills that Notre Dame’s team has.”
Of course, it’s a long way from here to the end of the season, and the Irish still face severe challenges, starting this week when they wind up a stretch of three consecutive road outings at Florida State Wednesday. Home games against Virginia and Duke remain in January, and next month starts with a trip to North Carolina on Feb. 4. The regular season ends with a trip to Louisville on March 4.
In between are all sorts of traps and pitfalls, making getting through the ACC unscathed for the Irish extremely unlikely. No team has gone undefeated in the ACC since the league went to an 18-game league schedule in 2013.
But it might behoove Notre Dame’s opponents to be sitting on a comfortable cushion heading into the final minutes. This Irish team has a way of coming back at you.