Notre Dame 69, Akron 56
(1.05 points per possession to .81 on 67 possessions per team)
Notre Dame cruised, in both the positive and negative sense, with an unimpressive but drama-free win over the Zips. It wasn't a great performance for the Irish on offense, but Akron just didn't have the firepower to take advantage. That conclusion was pretty much summed up by Akron coach Keith Dambrot (LeBron James' high school coach) after the game.
"I said during the game that tomorrow's headline would be 'mid-major pounds Notre Dame inside'," said Dambrot. "We got plenty of (inside looks), we just didn't make them. We just have to play a little bit better offensively to be right there nip-and-tuck at the end.
"I thought it was going to be a bigger challenge to guard them, I thought we guarded them pretty well."
Notre Dame jumped on top early, with what I'd call easy efficiency at both ends of the floor. Their motion offense was working inside out, leaving the shooters open on the perimeter (4-of-7 from behind the arc) and in the paint. Akron center Zeke Marshall was an early factor, but just not the kind the Zips would have hoped for. Marshall was consistently drawn away from the basket that he's so good at protecting. On the other end, he was missing some good looks in the paint and missing some open midrange shots despite what looked like a smooth-enough form. Marshall started 0-of-6 and Akron 2-of-13 as a team. There were at least four highly-makeable shots that Akron missed, which set the momentum heading in the wrong direction. The Irish led 21-10 midway through the first half.
"It was nothing really any different than I've played in the MAC," said Marshall, who finished with five points on 2-of-13 shooting. "I didn't shoot well. I had four two-foot layups I missed during the game. I don't recall their defense causing me to miss."
I was beyond pleased to find that the stats feed the NCAA set up for the media contains tempo-free statistics. Offensive efficiencies and categories for the four factors are all there, making the game much more enjoyable and digestible for a stat devotee such as myself. Midway through the first half, Notre Dame was averaging 1.27 points per possesion; Akron was scratching out a measly .83. I love that I was able to know that. What is beyond pleased anyway? Ecstatic? Yes. I was ecstatic to have tempo-free stats at my fingertips.
Before you knew it, the Zips cut the lead to five on a Quincy Diggs three-pointer. Akron had started to push the ball more, resulting in some open looks off the secondary break, such as the one Diggs ended up with. The Irish didn't strike me as the most fleet afoot team I've seen when it comes to getting up and down the floor, which might be a problem in the later rounds, especially if Notre Dame makes it to a possible regional final matchup with Kansas. Given the transition opps and the fact that Akron was getting back about a third of its own misses, the Irish's collective athleticism was starting to come into question.
"It's a fine line between being loose and concentrating," said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. "The first thing we did was erase the numbers next to the name. It took us a while to calm down."
Marshall became more of a defensive factor later and suddenly the Notre Dame offense looked ordinary. The Akron defenders were doing a good job of pinching their Irish counterparts on the perimeter. Notre Dame was feeding the post and attacking the paint off the dribble, but was 6-of-16 on twos until late in the half. Marshall got his first block with about a 1:30 to play in the half, then his second when he rejected Ben Hansbrough's dribble drive, then altered another shot. The Zips heated up from three-point range, bringing their crowd to life. The Irish were supposed to have the advantage playing 90 miles from South Bend, but any energy in the arena was coming from the smallish Akron contingent. The Zips pulled within four, 34-30, at the half and their bizaree kangaroo mascot happily bobbed from side to side.
"(Marshall) changed some shots," said Brey. "He is one long guy. I don't know if we played against anybody like that in the Big East."
"As bad as Zeke was defensively, I thought he really changed the game on defense," Dambrot said. "He had four blocks, but he changed a lot of others."
The vaunted Notre Dame offense, ranked third in adjusted efficiency at kenpom.com, averaged 1.03 points per possession in the first half, doing that well only because of a 10-2 advantage in free-throw attempts. That put the Irish precariously close to their version of the Mendoza line: Notre Dame was 2-5 when averaging less than a point per trip. The good news was that the middling Irish offense was giving up just .94 points per possesion to Akron. Notre Dame was 12-0 when allowing that level or better on the season. However, the Zips had the momentum going into the break.
Early in the second half, the Zips were doing a good job of preventing the dribble handoffs that are a staple of the Notre Dame attack, disrupting the offensive flow and forcing the Irish to go one one one. Unfortunately, Akron couldn't find a way to keep the scoreboard turning on its own end. Notre Dame's help defense, particularly from Carleton Scott, was very good and even when Marshall got a second-chance opportunity, he couldn't convert, dropping him to 1-of-10 on the day. Marshall looks like a player that is easily frustrated and he started to look very droop-shouldered. Four-plus minutes into the half, Akron still hadn't scored, and a Scott jumper put Notre Dame up 41-30.
Notre Dame eventually pushed the lead out to a game-high 13 on a Scott Martin drive and short jumper that put the Irish's offensive efficiency up to 107.1--safe ground. Akron was still over-playing on the perimeter, but a dispirited Marshall was slow to help and the Iris racked up points in the paint, holding a 16-10 edge to that point. The Zips had finally scored on a Darryl Roberts trey, but Notre Dame had established their dominance and there was no clear answer for Akron coach Keith Dambrot.
Still, Notre Dame could not completely shake Akron. Marshall went to the bench for a rest, and the Zips offense started rolling, basically by beating the Irish's perimeter defenders off the dribble on ball screens. Meanwhile, Ben Hansbrough was becoming a glaring non-factor as Notre Dame's offensive efficiency dropped. Marshall returned and scored on a lay-in off an inbounds play, pulling Akron within 49-44.
Tim Abromaitis stopped the run with a corner three--Akron did a poor job of rotating to the weakside corner the whole game--and Scott got three the old-fashioned way, re-establishing an 11-point advantage. That probably saved a whirling Mike Brey from picking up a technical because of some no-calls under the Notre Dame basket, which sort of overlooked 16-6 edge on charity tosses. I was sitting behind the Irish bench and Brey puts on quite a show.
"I think the key is that they didn't get rolling on the three-point arc," said Brey. "If they get too many clean looks, they're going to beat us."
There wasn't any drama in the finish of the game. Akron simply didn't have enough firepower to mount a sustained run. Notre Dame played a disappointing game on offense and seemed a little flat overall. They wouldn't have won against a better team. If Akron would have even one go-to scorer, the outcome might have been different.
"We'll watch film of some great offensive possessions and some forced offensive possessions," said Brey. "If we have too many forced possessions on Sunday, we're done."
Overall, the Irish turned the ball over on a fifth of their possessions (14 for the game) and forced just eight Arkon miscues. The offense was balanced--six players scored eight points or more--but frontliner Hansbrough was pretty quiet with a team-high 14 points. Akron managed just a .414 effective field-goal percentage and couldn't capitalize on a 25-14 edge in points off the bench.
"I'm disappointed we didn't win," said Dambrot. "I thought we competed hard enough to win. We just didn't shoot the ball well enough to win, really."
Added guard Steve McNees, "Getting here wasn't good enough for this group, so we're very disappointed. I'm sure when we look back, we'll be proud."
The Irish probably can be counted upon to put forth a better effort on Sunday, when they'll take on either Texas A&M or Florida State. I'd love to see the matchup with Florida State--Pomeroy's third-ranked offense against his second-ranked defense. Either way, Notre Dame will have to play better than it did on Friday. I was anxious to see the super-efficient Irish offense in action. I'm still waiting.
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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