After graduating seniors Kyle McAlarney, Luke Zeller, Ryan Ayers, and Zach Hillesland following an underachieving (21-15) 2008-09 season that ended with a loss to eventual NIT champion Penn State in the NIT semifinals, it figured to be a lean year for Notre Dame, and it looked like the Fighting Irish were certain to spend the balance of the season on the NCAA bubble.
Sure, they would be bringing back 2008 Big East Player of the Year Luke Harangody and point guard Tory Jackson, but they were breaking red-shirt junior forward Tim Abromaitis, Mississippi State transfer and red-shirt senior guard Ben Hansbrough (the younger brother of North Carolina great Tyler Hansbrough), and junior forward Tyrone Nash into the starting lineup.
Notre Dame was expecting Purdue transfer and red-shirt junior guard Scott Martin to contribute heavily, but he tore his ACL during the preseason, sidelining him for the year.
Knowing it would probably be a down year, head coach Mike Brey scheduled "cupcake" opponents in the non-conference portion of the schedule, and Notre Dame deployed Brey's run-and-gun offense to full affect during their season-opening five-game winning streak, averaging 86.8 points per game in defeating North Florida, St. Francis (PA), Long Beach State, Liberty, and Kennesaw State.
The first test for the Irish came on Nov. 28, as they faced off against a much-improved Northwestern team in the Chicago Invitational Challenge in Chicago. The Wildcats put the clamps on the high-flying Notre Dame offense, winning 72-58.
The offense resumed clicking out points in the next four games, as the Irish defeated Saint Louis (also part of the Chicago Invitational Challenge), Idaho State, UCF, and IUPUI, averaging 81.8 points per game.
After a brief hiccup—a home loss to Loyola Marymount—Notre Dame defeated UCLA and Bucknell, wrapping up their non-conference schedule 11-2, but the weak conference schedule was underscored by the fact that the Irish's best RPI win was against RPI No. 83 Saint Louis.
It was time for Big East play, and much like 2008-09, when Notre Dame lost 10 out of 14 games midseason to torpedo a 12-3 start, the Irish slumped in 2009-10, losing seven out of 10 games following a 14-3 (3-1 in-conference) start, lowlighted by losses at Rutgers, Seton Hall, and to St. John's, with that loss coming at home, where Notre Dame had only lost once before in 2009-10, at the hands of Syracuse.
Following a gritty, double-overtime loss at Louisville on Feb. 18, the Irish were 17-10 (6-8 in-conference) and fading fast, as Harangody was still suffering from a bone bruise that he suffered during the Seton Hall loss and was unable to play.
Notre Dame's season was at a crossroads, and with games against Pittsburgh, Georgetown, Connecticut, and Marquette on tap, it looked like the Irish would be making a return trip to the NIT.
A deep philosophical shift was brewing, though, and it was one that would take Notre Dame from the NIT to a single-digit seed in the NCAA tournament.
It all happened one night, at a team dinner, when Notre Dame assistant coach Anthony Solomon, who played on the Virginia team that nearly beat powerhouse Houston in the 1984 Final Four, was talking about his team's run from a mediocre regular season to the national semifinals.
Brey, half-listening to the conversation, asked Solomon, "Anthony, what was the score of that game?"
Told that the final score of that game was 49-47, Brey had an epiphany: His team, which was extremely proficient on the offensive end in playing a run-and-gun offense, was woefully deficient on the defensive end and had to limit its defensive possessions.
As a result, Notre Dame went from a guns-blazing offense to a deliberate, halfcourt offense. Junior forward Carleton Scott replaced Harangody in the starting lineup, and the offense of Abromaitis, Hansbrough, Jackson, Nash, and Scott developed into a cohesive unit.
As opposed to the run-and-gun offense of earlier in the 2009-10 season, the Irish spend 25 seconds of the shot clock getting the ball upcourt, passing the ball around the perimeter as they seek to find a defensive breakdown. When the shot clock hits single digits, they begin their penetration inside, or stay outside and fire a three-pointer, which is Notre Dame's forte.
The Irish have talented scorers in Abromaitis, Hansbrough, Harangody, Jackson, Nash, and Scott, and they are able to exploit the opponent's inability to play 35 seconds of defense, as most teams do not run this kind of deliberate offense and frequently shoot very early in the shot clock.
Credit must be given to this unit, as the veteran leadership provided by the seniors Harangody and Jackson has helped to ease the offensive transition.
During Notre Dame's six-game winning streak, their numbers have been absolutely astounding, as by limiting their opponents' offensive possessions by playing a deliberate offense called "Burn," the Irish are allowing only 54.7 points per game. They have played Pittsburgh twice in the last three weeks, defeated the Panthers both times, and allowed only 98 points in the two games combined.
The Irish held Seton Hall, which gashed the Swiss-cheese Providence defense for 109 points on Tuesday night, to 56 points Wednesday night.
To put that latter number in perspective, when the Pirates beat Notre Dame on Feb. 12, they scored 49 points in the first half, but could manage only 56 over the course of the game the second time around. The Irish also held the high-powered Connecticut offense to 50 points.
Brey's radical shift in philosophy has saved the Irish from a certain NIT bid and has brought them all the way to the Big East semifinals, where they will meet either Cincinnati or West Virginia, two teams they beat during the regular season.
Notre Dame is likely to garner a top-eight seed in the NCAA tournament now, and with this new style of "offense," it is interesting to see how they do if they are matched up with a run-and-gun offense from a different conference. All they have to do is keep playing "keep away," and the sky may be the limit for the Irish.