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How Notre Dame Has Been Winning This Season

Or a big part of it that most people might not think about.

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Never Forget Tribute Classic
NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 10: Eric Paschall #4 of the Villanova Wildcats attempts a shot as Bonzie Colson #35 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defends during the first half of a college basketball game at Prudential Center on December 10, 2016 in Newark, New Jersey. Villanova defeated Notre Dame 74-66.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

One reason Notre Dame was undefeated going into Saturday’s game with top-ranked, defending national champ Villanova was a little-noted strength indicative of a veteran team. Two stats actually: turnover margin and ratio of assists to turnovers.

Last year Louisville led the ACC with a +3.0 turnover margin, which ranked 19th in the NCAA. The Cardinals committed 11.4 turnovers per game, their opponents 14.4. Notre Dame ranked 11th in the ACC, with .3 more turnovers per game than their opponents.

As for assist/turnover ratio, the 2016 ACC leader was North Carolina at 1.65 assists per mistake. Note Dame stood fifth in the league at year’s end with a 1.34 ratio. The Fighting Irish also had the second-fewest turnovers per contest (9.6) after Louisville, but only the sixth-best assist average.

Now let’s jump to this season. After nine games, Mike Brey’s club was generally about where it was in December 2015 in most major statistical categories, from scoring to scoring defense, rebound average to 3-point accuracy. Through nine games the Irish were 7-2 versus 9-0 at the same stage in 2016-17.

One major difference was in team ballhandling. Despite the departure of playmaker Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame is doing better handling the ball without Jackson, the second-team All-ACC and second-round NBA selection. Starting five upperclassmen, the Irish led the conference in most assists per game, fewest turnovers, and best turnover margin and ratio of assists to turnovers.

Some of this is doubtless was a reflection of the quality of opponents in the elective part of the schedule. Then again, four of five starters had more assists than turnovers, including junior Matt Farrell, sixth in the ACC with 3.06 assists per miscue and a major force against Villanova (18 points, 6 assists, 2 turnovers). Freshman guard Temple “T.J.” Gibbs had 29 assists, six turnovers through nine games.

The Irish led Villanova by as many as 11 points in the first half before ultimately falling, 74-66. They still had 16 assists compared to nine turnovers and forced a 10:9 ratio of assists to turnovers by the Wildcats.

Not incidentally, Notre Dame also led the ACC in 3-point shooting prior to facing Villanova, not a particular departure from last year. They were 6-22 on Saturday.

Brey’s club enjoyed ridiculous high free throw accuracy (.859 on 159 of 185 shooting) before making all six foul shots against Villanova. That raised the team’s accuracy to .864. The best an ACC team ever shot from the line across a season was .799 by NC State in 2004.

Notre Dame Rank in ACC Through Nine Games of Season
Stat Category 2015-16 2016-17
Assists 6th 14.9 1st 19.0
Turnovers 2nd 9.6 1st 8.1
Turnover Margin 13th -0.11 1st +5.89
Assists to Turnovers 4th 1.56:1 1st 2.34:1
Free Throw Accuracy 8th .701 1st .859
3-Point Accuracy 2nd .412 1st .413

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