If you read Monday's Saddle Up -- our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action, as the tagline goes -- then you were all too aware of the Irish's apparent inability to score, and thus win, on the road. To wit: Not only did Notre Dame seem unable to snag a victory on the road, it had yet to even compete in a hostile environment. In its four tries this season -- three of them in Big East conference play, one in a quasi-road game in Louisville vs. Kentucky -- the Irish's typically wet shooting dried up, and when Notre Dame doesn't shoot the ball well, the defensively mediocre Irish struggle to keep up. Pretty simple stuff.
At least, that's what we thought. On Monday night, none of what you just read applied. Instead, the Irish executed an entirely different plan, one that yielded Mike Brey and company their biggest win in years. That plan? Make Pittsburgh feel the burn.*
"Burn" is Brey's term for the clock-killing offense you saw Monday night. Quite simply, the strategy seeks to control the pace of the game by asking players to hold off on shots until late in the shot clock. (Bo Ryan calls this strategy "offense.") It demands discipline, patience, and shooting accuracy, qualities the Fighting Irish have in droves. Like any strategy, it can backfire. But when it works, it deflates hostile crowds, slows the game to a crawl, levels the playing field, limits opponents' opportunities and reduces the game to a few late possessions when, as any college hoops fan knows, anything can happen.
Ben Hansbrough scored 19 points, leading Notre Dame to an upset at No. 2 Pitt.
Of course, no matter how slow you play, you still have to hit shots when it counts and, yeah, Notre Dame did that too. In fact, the Irish were even more efficient in late-clock situations, especially in the second half. Per ESPN Stats & Information, Notre Dame was 2-of-5 from the field with more than 25 seconds left on the shot clock, 4-of-6 when there were between 11 and 25 seconds remaining, and 13-of-27 when there were 10 seconds or less left to shoot. That last mark includes a 10-for-15 performance in the second half.
In all, the Irish scored 37 of their 56 points with less than 11 seconds on the shot clock Monday night. That's just crazy.
Of course, the late heroics of Ben Hansbrough are worth a mention. Though he didn't shoot the ball well (he was 1-of-6 from 3), Hansbrough was still efficient thanks to his 7-of-8 mark from inside the arc. More importantly, he was unstoppable in five straight pick-and-roll situations in the last five minutes of the game, a crucial stretch that allowed Notre Dame to seize its small lead and hold on for the win in the closing minutes. In the final 9:25 of the game, Hansbrough went 6-of-7 for 13 points, while the entire Pitt team went 6-of-11 for 12 points. Carlton Scott's 16-point, nine-rebound game -- which included a 5-of-6 night from beyond the arc -- was also a huge boost for the Irish.
More than anything, though, Brey, Hansbrough and the rest of the Irish deserve credit for an intelligently crafted and masterfully executed plan. As Notre Dame knows, winning on the road isn't easy. Winning on the road in the Big East isn't easy. Winning on the road at Pittsburgh is, you know, not easy. But if you control the pace of the game, prevent turnovers and make a few shots when it counts and hope the other team misses, you can beat just about anyone. That's what the road-weary Irish accomplished Monday night, and they earned a serious upset for their trouble.
I could be wrong, but I'd bet most basketball players like to play "burn" about as much as most basketball fans like to watch it. The quick response: Who cares? Aesthetic beauty doesn't win games. "Burn" did. In the process, Notre Dame discovered a blueprint for beating back the road woes that have been the only black mark on an otherwise impressive season.
In other words, look out, Big East. "Burn" could soon be coming to an arena near you.
*Sorry. Couldn't resist.
Kansas State 69, Baylor 61: I had a rec-league basketball game Monday night (go Bandits!), so I didn't see much of K-State's 69-61 win over Baylor as it happened. It sounds like I didn't miss much. Upon returning from my game, my editor Brett said he would have rather watched the Bandits roll another inferior league foe than the ugly first half of hoops that happened in Manhattan, Kan. He's wrong -- our rec-league games are supremely ugly -- but the point remains.
If you entered Monday night hoping either Kansas State or Baylor would show some glimpse of the talent that made them two popular Big 12 and Final Four favorites to begin the season, you were sorely disappointed. Neither team shot the ball well, neither team appeared to have improved its flagging offense, neither team played crisp basketball and, thanks to sloppy play and some overenthusiastic officiating, both teams spent most of the night trudging to the foul line. Perhaps the only bright spot for Kansas State -- besides the fact that it got a sorely needed Big 12 win -- was the Wildcats' 48.5 percent offensive rebounding rate, the lone offensive factor where Frank Martin's team has looked sound this season.
Other than that, it was another ugly pair of performances from two of 2011's most disappointing teams. Despite the ongoing hopes of Jacob Pullen beard-fearers and/or LaceDarius Dunn enthusiasts, neither Baylor nor Kansas State seems any closer to justifying their considerable preseason hype. Sigh.