UPDATE: I royally fucked up the individual effective shooting percentages for both Notre Dame and Princeton. Like, really, really fucked them up (they are hopelessly deflated below). In the end, though, the principle is the same: Notre Dame is horrendous offensively and Princeton is significantly better and really relies on McBride and Chanenchuk. Apologies and whatnot.
You can argue until you're blue in the face whether Georgetown should have taken Notre Dame's slot in the field of 16 but it won't do you any good. The fact of the matter is that the Fighting Irish is slated to play Princeton on Sunday and there's nothing you can do about it. Plus, Georgetown can go to hell.
So, as potential opponents for Syracuse in the Quarterfinals, what's the story with these two schools? On to the profiles and focus.
What Notre Dame Does Well
- None shall pass. This needs to be considered in two contexts: First, in the most literal way possible, and second, in the most esoteric way possible.
Let's start with the literal consideration. Assist rate generally tracks assists per possession, which is a fine indication of whether a defense is making an opposing offense look one or multi-dimensional. Notre Dame is fifth nationally in assist rate with only about 12 possessions out of 100 resulting in an assist that leads to a goal. For illustrative purposes, Syracuse -- which has been a wall on the defensive end of the field this year, making good teams look impotent -- is only about half an assist better than Notre Dame. When the Fighting Irish can trot out a close defense constituted with players standing around 6'4", you can see why Notre Dame has done such a good job at limiting helpers and easy goals.
The esoteric consideration is a bit more layered. Notre Dame is fourth in the country in defensive efficiency (23.32 goals per 100 possessions), but the underlying metrics that generally impact this efficiency are missing: The Irish is 36th in defensive effective shooting percentage (.27) and 56th in shots per defensive possession (1.1). Odd, right?
Well, here are the answers. Notre Dame is solid in the cage with Scott Rodgers who holds a 56.8% save percentage. The fact that the Irish is yielding so many shots doesn't really matter as Rodgers is stopping them. The second explanation is that Notre Dame has done very well in man-down situations holding opponents to only a 27% conversion rate (11th best nationally). So, when you consider all the annotated factors -- teams aren't converting on assists, opponents aren't converting on the man-up, and Rodgers is stopping a ton of shots -- where the Irish is yielding goals is on even strength situations and, more likely than not, those situations have been unsettled conversions as well. Any team would have a hard time being efficient in those scenarios anyway so you need to consider them with a grain of salt. In short, the Irish are getting beat on defense by exemplary individual performance and effort rather than standard team outputs.
And that, I guess, is new math. Or no math at all. I don't know.
- Compete. Notre Dame is all of 7-6 and a big reason for that are the items indicated below under "What Notre Dame Does Poorly." However, the Irish do compete very well despite their deficiencies. Notre Dame is 19th in efficiency margin (3.81) and a big reason for that is the strength of its defense. What is most indicative of a competitive team, though, is possession per game margin. The Fighting Irish are 20th in this metric (1.54 more offensive possessions per game than their opponents) in spite of the fact that they are only 17th in faceoff percentage (54%), 27th in clearing defense (80%), and 30th in offensive clears (81%). That's simply intangible mettle, and Notre Dame does it pretty well.
What Notre Dame Does Poorly
- Roll out game-changing offensive players. Notre Dame does not have much punch on offense (the Fighting Irish is only 35th nationally in offensive efficiency (27.19 goals per 100 possessions) and a big reason for that is that Notre Dame just doesn't have offensive players with impact on that end of the field. The Irish have three players with at least 24 points on the season: Zach Brenneman, Grant Krebs, and Neal Hicks. These are the primary cogs to the Notre Dame offense.
Unfortunately, they aren't exactly exemplary when you look through the veneer. Brenneman leads the pack with an effective shooting percentage of 20.67% which is actually below the team's effective shooting percentage (23.44%). Hicks and Krebs are even worse than Brenneman holding 18.17% and 16.00% effective shooting percentages, respectively. That's pretty weak on its own, but it is exacerbated even more when you look at their individual offensive efficiencies. Brenneman leads the group at 4.96 goals per 100 possessions with Krebs clocking in just behind at 4.53 and Hicks bringing up the rear at 4.09.
For contextual purposes, Princeton's two big guns -- Jack McBride and Mike Chanenchuk -- are about two to three goals per 100 possessions better than Notre Dame's primary three weapons. That is not good.
So, if you want to know why Notre Dame is so poor on offense, it's because they don't have hammers to drive in the nail.
- Function on the advantage. It shouldn't be all that suprising that a bad offensive team like Notre Dame is pretty poor in extra-man opportunities. The Fighting Irish are 43rd in the country on the EMO (the team is holding about a 30% conversion rate in extra-man situations) and it's attributable almost exclusive to two items. The first is that the team's effective shooting percentage is in the tank (as noted above). Notre Dame's most frequent man-up goal scorers are actually two inefficient and poor shooters: Brenneman (4 extra-man tallies) and Krebs (6). When you consider that Brenneman's and Kreb's effective shooting percentages are actually weighted in favor of their man-up tallies, you start to clearly see not only how bad the Irish are on the man-up, but also how ineffective their supposed extra-man specialists are.
The other piece of the puzzle considers Notre Dame's assist rate. As a team, the Irish are toward the bottom of the country with a .13 assist rate (51st in the country). Not good for a number of reasons, but mostly as it allows opposing defenses to focus on the ball handler. When you also consider that the team's most frequent assist men hold an individual assist rate of only .03 each (Brenneman and Hicks), things become even more dire.
The short of the long here, then, is that Notre Dame's primary man-up guys simply can't shoot and the guys that they need creating opportunities: a) aren't doing it, and b) are the guys they need to shoot (circular, I know, but that's the takeaway point, no?). This creates a huge problem that remains unresolved and sticks as a point of deficiency.
What Princeton Does Well
- Play their game. Princeton is the slowest team in the country (shocking, right?). With a pace of 62.13 possessions per game, the Tigers are solidly the 60th ranked team in this metric (Marist even plays quicker than Princeton at over a possession per game clip). The thing about Princeton's pace isn't tedium, though. The primary focus is that Princeton, no matter who they are playing, is going to play slowly and grind down the pace of the game. In short, the Tigers are hell bent on controlling the pace of play, and no team is going to take them out of their strategy to do so. That's simply an imposition of will.
- Pepper the cage. Nobody shoots more than Princeton. With an astonishing 1.25 shots per possession (1st in the country), the Tigers are letting fly and recovering in each of their interminably long offensive possessions (remember: Princeton has the slowest pace in the country, which means that they generate the longest offensive and defensive possessions in the land).
Where are these shots coming from? You would think with such a high shots per possession rate that Princeton would be sharing the load in the shooting department. That's not the case. Three players are primarily handling the shooting load: Jack McBride (24% of offensive possession shots), Mike Chanenchuk (20%), and Chris McBride (17%). That is a really focused shot priority strategy. In the end, it is genius as Jack McBride's and Chanenchuk's effective shooting percentages and offensive efficiency are quite good: Jack McBride has an individual offensive efficiency of 7.11 and an effective shooting percentage of 31.16%; Chanenchuk is a shade behind with a 6.03 individual offensive efficiency and has a 25.50% effective shooting percentage.
When you aggregate these circumstances, it is clear why Princeton is 9th in the country in team offensive efficiency (34.9).
- Maintain defensive superpowers. If you're going to play slow, you better play strong on the defensive end. Princeton's overall defensive efficiency isn't all that great (19th nationally at 26.59 goals per 100 defensive possession), but it doesn't seem to matter (well, it mattered significantly when Princeton played Syracuse, but that's a story for another day). Nobody has been able to shoot against the Tigers (Princeton is third in shots per defensive possession at .83 shots per possession) and even when teams are shooting they're not canning the bean (the Princeton defense has held opponents to an effective shooting percentage of about 22% which is eighth best in the country).
Why has this happened? Well, Tyler Fiorito is a maniac in the cage, stopping 57% of the shots he's seen this year. That helps. Having John Cunningham and Long Ellis also helps significantly. (Aside: Cunningham is the groundball machine, but Ellis is the standout guy on that defense to me. That guy can straight play and is ridiculous dangerous when in one-on-one scenarios.)
What Princeton Does Poorly
- Create possessions. This hasn't been a huge problem for Princeton this year as the Tigers have been fairly efficient on both ends of the field. The problem comes, however, when Princeton isn't clicking on either or both ends of the field (See, Syracuse-Princeton). Princeton does not clear the ball all that well (32nd nationally at 80%), does not force teams into clearing failures (only 34th nationally in opponent clearing percentage at 82%), and doesn't win faceoffs (30th nationally at 51%).
The end run here is that if Princeton gets behind, it doesn't have the tools to forceably create offensive possessions for themselves and turn the tide (this is borne out in Princeton's offensive possession margin per game, which is actually negative and in the bottom half of the country). This is especially scary as Princeton refuses to play at an accelerated pace. It obviously burned them against Syracuse. Will it happen again?
- Shoot effectively. Outside of Jack McBride and Mike Chanenchuk (noted above), this team just doesn't shoot all that well. The team is clicking at only a 25% rate in offensive effective shooting percentage, good for all of 34th best in the land. Two of it's "Big Four" offensive weapons (Rob Engelke and Chris McBride) actually shoot worse than the team as a whole, registering individual offensive effective shooting percentages of 15.00% and 13.33%, respectively. Their individual offensive efficiencies follow this thread, holding rates of 3.23 and 3.44, respectively.
The biggest problem with this lack of shooting prowess, however, is that it's killing Princeton on the extra-man. Princeton is 58th (19%) in extra-man conversions. You have to be better than that. You just have to in the playoffs.
This may be the most unwatchable game of the first round, but let's walk through the focus anyway.
- The game may turn almost exclusively on the play of Rodgers and Fiorito in the cage, moreso Rodgers play. Princeton is going to grip it and rip it and Notre Dame yields a ton of shots per defensive possession. This should play into Princeton's favor but if Rodgers stands on his head, this could be a long game for the Tigers given Princeton's shooting woes. In the end, whoever stops more shots between the pipes is going to play a huge factor in the game.
- Generating possessions is monumental. With Princeton's snail-like pace, this is going to be a slow game. Notre Dame is better than Princeton at generating possessions (specifically at the faceoff "x") and it is immensely important for the Irish to hold an advantage in this metric as Notre Dame is so poor on the offensive end. If Princeton keeps the offensive possession margin close, Notre Dame is a walking corpse.
- Notre Dame defense against Jack McBride and Mike Chanenchuk. The Irish are solid on the defensive end, but McBride and Chanenchuk are game changing offensive players that can erase Princeton's extra-man and general shooting woes. Notre Dame needs to focus on these two players and if the Irish can limit their opportunities, Notre Dame has a chance at victory.