The difference between victory and defeat in college basketball often comes down to one play. Even in a forty five minute game that was as well-contested and intensely fought as Louisville and Notre Dame’s battle Wednesday night, the outcome can often be traced to one decision by a coach or player that totally shapes both teams’ fortunes.
On Wednesday night, that play was not an individual’s dynamic move or a long-distance bomber’s clutch shot. Instead it was one decision by Notre Dame coach Mike Brey that took his coaching rival Rick Pitino slightly off guard and ensured his Irish team would have the opportunity to pull off their 89-79 win in overtime.
With the game tied in regulation, Louisville called timeout with 26 seconds left to set up a last-second shot and try to escape with another late victory. End of game situations have been especially fruitful for the Cardinals this season, as they have found a way to steal three late victories against Marquette, West Virginia and Connecticut based almost entirely on their ability to out execute against their opponent down the stretch. In the latter two games, Louisville found great success in clearing out for guard Peyton Siva and allowing him to create a final shot attempt one on one versus his man. Twice against Connecticut and one against West Virginia, Siva beat his man off the dribble and created a bucket that helped pull out a huge victory.
Fast forward to the end of game scenario on Wednesday night and the Notre Dame huddle before the final possession. Having seen the game tape of Louisville’s final possessions in past Big East games, Brey made one simple coaching adjustment that could have a profound effect on his team's season. Rather than allow the Cards to clear the floor and have Siva take advantage of his quickness against the defender guarding him in man defense, Brey told his Irish to play zone. If executed properly, this would keep Siva or one of the other Louisville guards out of the lane and force the Cardinals to find a different method to get off a final shot.
When Pitino’s team broke the huddle, it was clear the change in defense confused the Cards. They stood at the top of the key looking around frantically and then were forced to reverse the ball around the perimeter and settle for a contested three from Preston Knowles. Louisville had clearly prepared to face a man defense and the team was unable to change effectively enough on the fly to counter Brey’s clever change of strategy. The game went to Overtime with Notre Dame carrying the momentum and the Irish rolled to the win easily.
Had Brey not made the change, and simply defended Louisville in the same way Bob Huggins and Jim Calhoun, two bright coaches in their own right, had done, then we might be talking about how the gritty Louisville team stole another impressive road win. Siva could have taken the ball to the basket, finished with a layup or a pass to an open shooter and his role as a clutch finisher would have been the topic of this column. But instead, Brey made one small adjustment. And that adjustment set the table for the No. 7 ranked team in America to get a huge conference win.
It has been said in the past that a great college coach is worth at least 5 games a year. If that is true, Brey certainly got 20 percent of his quota on Wednesday in South Bend.