BLAST FROM THE PAST: On The Notre Dame Burning Men

Jonathan Daniel

Rubie sez: we originally ran this post before Marquette's game against Notre Dame last year. Unsurprisingly, the 2013 vintage of Fighting Irish basketball is just as slow and ugly as the 2012 version, so we decided to run the post again and update the stats as necessary.

Last year, in the wake of an epically awful Michigan State-Illinois rock fight that ended in a 42-41 Illini victory, Shane Ryan wrote a post at Grantland's The Triangle blog advocating the introduction of a 24-second shot clock in college basketball. The thesis of the post, in a nutshell: the number of possessions in the average college basketball has fallen steadily since the late 1990s, and during that same time frame, there's also been a significant (though probably not precipitous) drop in scoring. Ryan attempts to tie those two facts together, and argues that the increase in pace forced by a 24-second shot clock would go far to restoring the luster that Ryan feels is lacking from the college game.

It's a superficially intriguing argument, I suppose, but among the myriad problems with the thesis -- for example: (1) correlation (lower possessions and lower scoring since 1997) isn't necessarily causation (lower possessions = lower scoring); (2) decreasing the shot clock wouldn't have made the Michigan State-Illinois game any prettier, it just would've meant more missed shots; and (3) it wholly disregards the detrimental effect one-and-dones are having on the quality of the college game: scores are lower, in part, because a lot of the really good players pop in for a season and then bail for the NBA -- is the fact that Ryan uses Wisconsin as his example of the team that's destroying college basketball with a plodding pace.

I'm loathe to dismiss another man's distaste for Bo and the Badgers, of course, but it seems than Shane Ryan has a particularly sharp burr up his ass when it comes to Buckyball -- you might recall an earlier essay declaring the Badgers The Most Boring Team in America after UW nearly went all tortoise-and-the-hare in a game against UNC in Chapel Hill -- and that bias points his argument about tempo in college basketball in the wrong direction.

You want to see a team that's ruining college basketball with tempo? Don't bother with Madison, where the Badgers at least have the decency to run an offense while they're bleeding out the shot clock. Look towards South Bend, Indiana.

PICTURED: This is the burn offense. Or at least 90% of it.

A few years back, when Shrek Luke Harangody was lost for an extended period of time and Notre Dame was struggling to score points, Irish coach Mike Brey unveiled something he called the "burn" to compensate for Harangody's missing offense. Knowing his team couldn't keep pace with the Syracuses and UConns of the world, Brey chose to have his team play a modern-day version of the four corners offense: Notre Dame "burned" the first 20 (or so) seconds of the shot clock, then ran its traditional offensive set in the last 15 (or so) seconds. In essence, the burn is a whole lot of dribbling by the halfcourt stripe, followed by a few seconds of activity when the team actually attempts to score.

You might think I'm overstating things for effect. I'm not. (Much.)

In the burn offense, Notre Dame works the shot clock down to 10 seconds before looking to attack the hoop, on every possession, to the extent that on some possessions Notre Dame endures a shot clock violation, and thus a turnover, rather than give the ball back to its opponent quickly.

"We are still just as aggressive as we normally are, it just takes us longer to get to it," [Notre Dame guard Scott] Martin said. "We don't stop looking to score, we just wait for it, wait for it, let the clock burn down a little bit, then we have our aggressive mindset the rest of the shot clock."

Notre Dame employed the burn with great success at the end of the 2009-'10 season, stalling its way to four straight wins to end the Big East season (51 possessions in a win over Pitt; 58 in a victory over Georgetown; 61 in a win over UConn; and 63 in an overtime win at Marquette that still pisses me off) and two more wins in the Big East Tournament (including another 50-possession snorefest against Pitt in New York). But the burn's moment in the sun (or shadow, depending on your perspective) came two years ago, when the Domers stole a win at the Oakland Zoo with a forty-nine possession lullaby that ended as a 56-51 Irish win.

Last year, after senior Tim Abromaitis wrecked his knee and robbed ND of its most consistent scoring threat, the burn was unleashed once again: Notre Dame ranked 328th in KenPom's adjusted tempo metric (61.2 possessions per game), and played just two games that had more than 70 possessions (in a demolition at the hands of Mizzou and a two overtime victory over Louisville). In Big East play, the Irish played ten games that finished with fewer than 60 possessions (vs. Pitt, vs. USF, vs. UConn, @ Rutgers, @ UConn, @ West Virginia, vs. West Virginia, @ Georgetown, vs. USF in the BET and vs. Louisville in the BET). Once again, the burn proved to be as brutally efficient as it is brutally ugly: after dropping a 65-58 decision to Rutgers on January 16 to fall to 3-3 in the Big East, the Domers ran (relative term) off 10 wins in 12 games to finish the conference season at 13-5 - and then promptly got housed by Louisville in the Big East Tournament and picked off by Xavier in the Dance.

This year, if you can believe it, Notre Dame's managed to play even slower: the Irish are now 332nd in KenPom's adjusted tempo, checking in at just 60.9 possessions per game. (Among the teams that play slower than ND, according to KenPom: Pitt, Virginia, North Dakota State, Princeton, Wyoming, and Vanderbilt.) Like last year, the Irish rarely break 70 possessions in a game; they've done so five times this year (vs. Monmouth, vs. Purdue, against DePaul twice [both in OT], and in the 5OT cage match against Louisville). In Big East play, Notre Dame has played under-60 possession games eight times already, but they're only 5-3 in those games.

Last year, Marquette was the polar opposite of the Irish in terms of tempo. YOUR Golden Eagles ripped off 71.4 possessions per game, which ranked 16th nationally according to KenPom. This year, though, with Jae Crowder and DJO gone, Marquette isn't running nearly as much: MU averages just 64.5 possessions per game, which puts it in the bottom third nationally in terms of pace (247th, per KenPom). Marquette's fastest game was against LSU (75 possessions) and has only broken 70 possessions twice in Big East play (both in overtime, vs. UConn and @ Cincinnati).

All of this is a long way of saying: tomorrow's game has all the makings of a bareknuckle brawl. Grab your barf bags and strap in, kids. At least we only have to do this once.

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