CLEVELAND – In case you haven’t heard, college basketball is in the midst of a crisis, akin to what baseball went through in the late 1960s. Offense is down. People can’t score. Most important of all, of course, they’re worried about the quality of the product on TV.
Possible remedies are in the works. They’re experimenting with a 30-second shot clock (down from 35) to hasten the offenses – though you wonder if requiring players to hoist up shots sooner will simply result in even more brutal offensive exhibitions.
What college hoops could really use is more Notre Dames. If more teams played offense like this Fighting Irish squad, no one would be fretting about the dubious entertainment value of the games. They’d be searching for ways to further overexpose the sport on ESPN.
Notre Dame put on an offensive clinic here Thursday night, shooting a staggering 75 percent in the second half to pull away from Wichita State, 81-70, in the Midwest Region semifinal of the NCAA Tournament at Quicken Loans Arena.
Five days after losing his mother to a heart attack and winning in overtime over Butler, Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey enjoyed the most gratifying victory of his career, leading Notre Dame into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979.
Hoop lovers were looking forward to this game, a matchup of two skilled, evenly matched veteran teams who played three guards and executed their offenses at a higher level than most teams in the college game today.
Wichita State seemed too good for a No. 7 seed, while critics wondered if the Irish were good enough for their No. 3 seed. And when Darius Carter hit a jump shot with 16:41 left in the game, giving the Shockers their first lead, 38-37, it was shaping up as a classic.
But the Irish responded with a stunning offensive run, outscoring the Shockers, 33-18, over the next 10:18 to take a commanding 70-56 lead. They made 14 of 16 shots in the run. It happened so fast, the Shockers didn’t seem to know what hit them.
“We got into one of our rhythms that no other team in the country can do,” Brey said.
Brey had said on Wednesday that people didn’t give his team enough credit on defense. They play three guards – four if you consider Pat Connaughton, a 6-5 swingman, a guard. He said all of their big wins over the past month have been triggered by defensive stops that allowed them to find their offensive rhythm and go on big runs.
This was the most amazing run of all. It started when Brey called a timeout to settle his troops down after losing the lead. If you want to know about a coach, watch what his team does coming out of a timeout. Brey drew up a play that led to an open three-pointer for Demetrius Jackson, who buried it to regain the lead, 40-38.
“Our defense definitely sparks it,” said Connaughton, who was brilliant with 16 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks and two steals. “When we hit that timeout, it wasn’t about strategy, but defense, getting stops and getting out running.
“That’s a fun way to play,” Connaughton said, “and it’s when we’re at our best on both ends of the floor. It’s something you just feed off of, like blood in the water. You want to keep getting stops so you can keep running. Something you can’t get enough of.”
Jackson, a 6-1 sophomore, nailed another three to make it 43-38. Notre Dame was in a full offensive frenzy now. The Irish made 14 of their first 16 shots of the second half. The blood was in the water and the Shockers needed a bigger boat.
And this wasn’t some sad sack team the Irish were running out of Quicken Loans Arena. It was Wichita State, which was allowing only 56.7 points a game, ranking eighth in the country. Yeah, Wichita State, which had won 65 of its last 70 games coming into the night.
Yes, an offensive clinic. You’re not supposed to do such things against the Shockers. They hadn’t allowed 80 points in a game in more than two years. That’s why Wichita State was a two-point favorite, despite being a seventh seed.
On Wednesday, Brey had embraced the underdog’s role. He knew a lot of fans were looking forward to a rematch of last year’s Round of 32 game, when Kentucky knocked off top-seeded and unbeaten Wichita State.
“But we did win an ACC Tournament,” Brey said, “going through North Carolina and Duke on Tobacco Road. We do feel a little bit like the odd man out, though.”
Brey was playing the underdog role to the hilt. He knew his team was capable of this sort of performance. They were second in the country in field-goal percentage at 51 percent.
It’s almost unheard of for teams to shoot 51 percent in today’s college game, where there’s so much emphasis on the three-point shot and coaches have so many ways to shut down opposing offenses. Heck, West Virginia shot 41 percent this season.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall wasn’t fooled, though. He knew Notre Dame had beaten both Duke and North Carolina twice. You don’t roll through the ACC if you’re not a very formidable offensive force.
“The last game I watched today was Duke in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament,” Marshall said after his team finished 30-5. “They were up 15 points in that game. This team’s playing really well.
“When you win the ACC Tournament in Greensboro,” he said, “beating North Carolina and Duke back-to-back, you’re playing really well.”
In the biggest game of the year, perhaps the biggest game since Kelly Tripucka and Bill Laimbeer played in South Bend, the Irish played a game that celebrated offensive basketball, the way it used to be played.
They passed and cut and made shots and were near-perfect for a half against a very good defensive team. Notre Dame is now 8-1 this year against teams that made it to the Sweet 16.
They’ll face an even more potent opponent on Saturday with a trip to the Final Four on the line: Kentucky. It just might be a matchup between the best offensive and defensive teams in the game.
In a year of troubled offenses, it seems fitting that Kentucky be required to take down a team that actually knows how to score.