There is no questioning No. 3 Ohio State’s ability on the defensive end of the floor.
Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott may be the two best on-ball defenders in the country, and Sam Thompson isn’t too far behind them. The Buckeyes have played a fairly weak schedule, but it’s not a mistake or a statistical fluke that they currently sit as the best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom’s defensive efficiency rankings.
So it shouldn’t surprise you that, on a night where Ohio State was stymied by Notre Dame’s 2-3 zone, it was the Buckeye defense that came to the rescue.
The Irish had a 58-50 lead with 58 seconds left when Jerian Grant threw the ball away. It ended up being the first of three Notre Dame turnovers in the span of 18 seconds, two of which came against Ohio State’s stifling press and all three of which led to two points for the Buckeyes. After Demetrius Jackson gave Notre Dame a four point lead with two free throws, Pat Connaughton fouled Lenzelle Smith shooting a three. Smith hit all three free throws and followed that up with a lay-in to give OSU the lead after Steven Vasturia missed the front end of a one-and-one.
On the ensuing possession, Grant lost the ball off of his leg. After two Ohio State free throws, Grant was fouled but only hit one of the two free throws. All told, Grant had three turnovers and a missed free throw in the final minute. It was not his finest moment.
A game-tying three from Jackson bounced harmlessly off the rim, and Notre Dame left the Garden with a 64-61 loss.
And with that, Ohio State remained undefeated, although the Irish did well to expose the Buckeye’s biggest flaw. Thad Matta’s boys really struggled against Notre Dame’s 2-3 zone in the second half. They don’t have enough weapons on the offensive end of the floor. They don’t have enough creators, and when their best defensive lineup is on the court, there just isn’t enough perimeter shooting and no one to park in the middle of the zone.
Think about it like this: the Buckeyes have to have LaQuinton Ross on the court because he is their most dangerous scorer in the half court. But he’s painfully streaky and quite simply not a good on-ball defender. Notre Dame was outscoring Ohio State 32-17 at one point in the second half largely because they allowed whoever Ross was guarding to attack the rim.
There aren’t many teams that can field a lineup with four quality ball-handlers like Notre Dame can, so the Buckeyes should be able to hide Ross defensively on most night. When that’s the case, their defense is good enough to keep them in the game against anyone. But there are certain matchups — teams with four perimeter players, like Michigan, or Duke, or Wisconsin — that will give them some trouble.
As far as the Irish are concerned, this is just a crushing, devastating loss.
Teams don’t lose when they have an eight point lead with 58 seconds left on the clock. The Irish collapsed in a game that they really, really needed to win. Notre Dame has lost to Indiana State and North Dakota State at home this season, but those results would have been forgiven with a win over a top five team in the country at a neutral site.
It will be interesting to see where Notre Dame goes from here. They collapsed. They choked. There’s no other way to put it. The Irish played perfect basketball for 19 minutes in the second half before giving it all away. This is the kind of game that can destroy the confidence of a team.
Notre Dame gets Canisius next Sunday before hosting No. 8 Duke at home to kick off ACC play.