Heading into the final exhibition Monday against Division II Stonehill (Mass.) College, nowhere is that more evident than on the defensive end of the floor.
Even without Scott Martin, expected to be among the team’s leading scorers, Notre Dame sailed to 90 points six days ago in an 18-point win over Saint Xavier (Ill.) an NAIA school.
But as easy as the Irish made it look on offense, so did an undersized and seemingly overmatched opponent. Notre Dame allowed Saint Xavier to shoot 48.6 percent when it was still a game in the first half. The Irish also allowed 38 points in the paint as the other guys consistently found ways to get good shots.
Numbers like those can lead to some long nights in the Big East. But it’s also an area the Irish know they can be better. Working four new starters into the lineup and bringing in a bunch of bench guys who haven’t played significant roles is going to take time to cement the cohesion to guard your guy.
"Defensive chemistry is definitely something that builds over time," said Irish co-captain Tim Abromaitis. "We need to do a little bit better job communicating and figuring out ball screens.
"It will come."
A year ago, the defense was anchored by senior forwards Ty Nash and Carleton Scott, who billed themselves as Batman (Scott) and Robin (Nash) for their ability to work together. If Nash got beat on the baseline, he knew Scott would be near the rim waiting. If Scott allowed someone to get into the lane, he knew Nash would have his back. There was an unspoken communication between the two that just isn’t there yet with anyone in this group.
"We have a lot of different bodies coming in and out," said sophomore point guard Eric Atkins, not expected to take many minutes off this season. "When you come in the game fresh and have to guard someone who’s been in the game for 20 minutes running at you, that’s always going to be tough.
"Hopefully, everyone can get out there and will be ready to go."
The Irish remain the proverbial work in progress as they search for a defensive identity. A year ago, Notre Dame was a relatively solid defensive unit compared to recent seasons. The Irish finished eighth in the 16-team Big East in points allowed (65.5) after finishing 11th (68.4), 12th (70.7) and 12th (69.6) the previous three seasons. In 2010-11, they were seventh in field-goal percentage defense (40.8 percent), first in defensive rebounds (26.2) and second only to Pittsburgh in defensive rebounding percentage (70.5). There were times when they could have been better, but also many nights when they were really good.
Now who are they going to be? Will they be a team that relies mainly on man-to-man or one that mixes in more 2-3 zone to help the guys (Abromaitis, Atkins, Martin) who are expected to log serious minutes?
Notre Dame showed some 2-3 zone against Saint Xavier, and one time featured a back line of the 6-foot-8 Abromaitis and two 6-9 guys in Jack Cooley and Tom Knight. Yet just as in seasons past, the other team didn’t need much time before finding an open space in the zone for an open 3. Soon, the Irish were back in man.
Again, that brings about the buzzword in preseason – patience.
"It’s going to be little steps with this group," said Irish coach Mike Brey. "I’m kind of excited to see how we go week-to-week."
Brey preached between exhibitions about the rewards of a good defensive possession. When the Irish can get a defensive rebound, that gets the ball in the hands of Atkins, who can quicken the tempo and find guys for easy transition shots. But if the ball’s going through the hoop on one end, that means no outlet, no fast break and fewer fun ways to finish.
Want to run? Defend and rebound better than last week, when the Irish had only six fast-break points.
"That’s got to be my sales pitch," Brey said. "When you get a defensive rebound and an outlet to Eric Atkins, good stuff has been happening."
Martin missing again
Senior co-captain Scott Martin is not expected to play Monday as he continues to recover from a sprained right ankle that has limited him the last two weeks. Notre Dame likely will start the same lineup it did against Saint Xavier with Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant at guard and Tim Abromaitis, Joey Brooks and Jack Cooley on the front line.
Staff writer Tom Noie: