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"Four out cutters."
"Five out cutters."
This drill is a suite of screening and cutting at half speed. Veteran NBA coach Doug Collins introduced it to Irish coach Mike Brey seven years ago, and now it forms the basis of what Brey calls "unpredictable motion"—a perimeter-oriented pas de cinq he used to outmaneuver most of the Big East, finishing second in the league (after being picked seventh) despite losing All--Big East post player Luke Harangody, who took 37.1% of Notre Dame's shots in '09--10. According to Synergy Sports, the Irish have the nation's most efficient half-court offense, shredding opponents at a rate of 1.020 points per possession. Before practice Abromaitis talks about the random nature of the Irish attack: "We joke about it: What do other teams say when they're scouting us? 'This guy is here ... this guy is here ... and they just play'?"
Indeed, most of Notre Dame's possessions are guided only by concepts. In a lunchtime film session, assistant Martin Ingelsby says of Brey, "I think if he could run zero set plays, that would be his ultimate team." Brey concurs. He has close to his ultimate team now, led by the virtuoso point guard play of Hansbrough, the younger brother of former North Carolina star (and current Pacer) Tyler, who transferred to South Bend from Mississippi State in '08 and is averaging 18.5 points and 4.3 assists. His backcourtmate is Abromaitis, a 42.4% three-point shooter with a formidable IQ: He graduated in three years and is on track to receive an M.B.A. in the spring. "There are times," Brey says, "where I'll just tell the guys, 'Let's get flowing.'"
There are other times, such as the ones that are obvious on the tape of Notre Dame's 56--51 victory at Pittsburgh on Jan. 24, where Brey asks them to grind to a halt. The Irish are the only team to win at the Panthers' Petersen Events Center all season, and it did so by going into "full burn" mode, a slowed-down version of the motion that the team first experimented with when Harangody missed five games due to a bone bruise in his right knee last February and March. Hansbrough, its lone true one-on-one operator, helps them burn down the first 25 or so seconds of each second-half possession. He then fillets the Pitt defense on a series of high pick-and-rolls on a left-to-right diagonal path, either by scoring on his own, hitting a rolling Nash or finding a shooter (Scott or Abromaitis) who has dragged up to the left wing. "Ben has become such a smart player," Brey says. "When we first got him, he could be a caveman, just running over everyone, chasing raw meat."
Hansbrough hasn't lost his intensity, which is hardwired into his family's genetic code: Tyler's nickname in Chapel Hill was Psycho T, leading some to refer to Ben as Psycho B. But Ben has received an education from the Brey School of Pacing. What makes the Irish a threat to reach its first Final Four since 1978 is that their offense can thrive at three speeds—full burn, semi-burn and regular. This has resulted in their scoring as few as 56 points (against Pitt, full burn) and as many as 94 (at Providence, regular). In each version the Notre Dame players take multiple walking steps before making hard cuts. And all five players, including Nash, who refers to himself as a "point center," tend to roam the perimeter and take turns handling the ball. Brey will occasionally request something abstract ("Let's get a low-post touch," for example) and trust his team to expand on the theme.