The burn offense, as it's called, was implemented by Brey starting back in the 2009-10 season when they experienced several injuries. The basic idea behind the offense is to dwindle the shot clock by dribbling out 15-20 seconds before even starting the offense in an attempt to create a low-possession game, placing a premium on focus and patience for themselves and their opponent.
The Irish have used it successfully to beat teams with more talent by taking away any rhythm or pace to the game. They did it to Syracuse this season and ended up giving the Orange their only loss of the regular season and dethroning them atop the AP polls. It also helped them achieve their nine-game winning streak that ensued following the win over Syracuse, and lasted an entire month from January 21 to February 25 when they lost at St. John's.
A two game losing streak to St. John's and Georgetown though, also showed the problem with the burn offense -- If the Irish don't hit shots, they end up becoming extremely beatable and score just 41 points, like they did at Georgetown. The Irish did everything that they normally do, but just couldn't make the necessary shots to win.
Not to be confused with a Princeton offense or other offenses with slow pace, it's not a complex system that has to be installed and worked on constantly, rather a philosophy and game-plan that can be applied and removed as needed throughout the game. The Irish are still aggressive and play a modern system, but just wait a little while to get into their actions.
Brey has used it off and on, but it would seem that all signs point to the Musketeers getting the burn in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
With the loss of Abromaitis, Brey has developed sophomore guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, and turned them into play-makers who can knockdown shots and distribute with confidence and poise in the offense. Grant provides a dynamic scoring threat off the wing with athleticism and an edge, while Atkins plays with tremendous feel at the point position and sets his teammates up while also hitting threes.
Against a man-to-man, which is what Xavier has primarily played this season, Notre Dame likes to take the shot clock down to about 10-15 seconds and attack off a ball-screen with Grant or Atkins. This causes the defense to be patient and locked in for the scramble in the final seconds of the shot clock for the entire game, while also making sure they get a body on their man and limit the Irish to just one shot.
The man doing the screening is Jack Cooley, a 6-9, 248-pound junior forward, who Xavier Coach Chris Mack says is, "carved out of ice." Cooley emerged during Big East play to become one of the best big men in the conference, and deservedly took home second team All-Big East honors. During the nine-game win streak, Cooley nearly averaged a double-double against top Big East competition with 15.8 points per game and 9.9 rebounds.
Another sophomore, Alex Dragicevich has proven to be a nice threat at 6-7, capable of knocking down threes at a 34.8 percent clip, though his play has been very up and down throughout the year. Pat Connaughton, a 6-5 freshman wing, is averaging 6.9 points a game and is shooting 33.6 percent from three in the offense.
Brey's squad has high IQ players who are able to read those late shot-clock situations and make a backdoor cut, or shape-up to the wing and space the floor. They make the defense defend a high-screen preferably, and then make them scramble to recover in that high-intensity, end of the shot-clock scenario. They can hit Cooley on the roll, or they also have shooters on either side ready to fire, who they are very good at finding. The Irish have five players with over 100 3-point attempts on the season, and in games against Georgia and Cincinnati they nearly attempted as many threes as they did twos.
Here's a great example of how they use the Burn offense for an open jumper.
Despite ranking dead-last in the Big East conference play with an average of 57 possessions per 40 minutes, Notre Dame is highly efficient with their methodical attack, ranking third in the conference with 1.027 points per possession. By comparison, Xavier is averaging 68.9 possessions per 40 and 1.016 points per possession on the year. Points per possession (PPP) is an effective way to judge efficiency because it takes every possession that ends with a shot, assist, or turnover and uses that to evaluate a player's performance.
While Notre Dame brings forth an efficient and balanced attack, they aren't a juggernaut. They rely fairly heavily upon the 3-pointer, yet only shoot 32.9 percent from beyond the arc as a team. They have capable shooters, but not lights out shooters. According to advanced statistics, a whopping 29.7 percent of the time the end result of the Irish's offensive possessions is a spot-up jumper.
They are actually much better when they get the ball inside to Cooley. The Irish average 1.029 PPP in post up situations, but only get it inside 7.4 percent of their possessions. By comparison, 11.1 percent of the Musketeers' possessions result in post-ups, but they only average 0.714 PPP.
The other way of scoring in which the Irish are very efficient is off of cuts to the basket. As mentioned, they have players that understand the game, and they have good success late in the shot-clock at making plays off of ball-screens while the opponent's defense is trying to scramble. If someone has to help up on a penetrating guard off of a screen, Notre Dame will make a cut to the basket and their guards will find the open man. Xavier has to stay disciplined and adhere to the principles of their defense for the full shot clock.
There's no guarantee that the Irish will use the Burn offense, and they may only use it for part of the game. Their best scorer, Grant, is better suited in a wide-open, transition game where he's getting to the rim, but Brey has been able to make it work, using the talented and explosive guard to initiate the offense and make a play off the ball-screen late in the possession.
It makes sense that the Irish would try and slow the game down against a team like Xavier, who is much better in transition than they are in the half-court. The slow pace, and "one-on-one off a ball-screen" feel to the game, might also entice the Musketeers' talented backcourt to become more like ball-stoppers, trying to take over one-on-one, which plays right into the hands of the Irish's packed-in defense.
The first way Xavier can combat this offensive approach is the obvious answer -- speed them up.
However, there's only so much Xavier can do by applying ball-pressure, seeing as how the Irish aren't just going to hand the ball over, so the Musketeers will have to do a really good job of guarding high ball-screens.
The way Xavier's guards pressure the ball and recover against the screens will be very important, as the Irish don't like to hit the screener on the roll or the pop, as much as they like their guards to make plays. Hedging or owning that screen temporarily will be the big man's responsibility, and then the guards will have to do a great job of recovering or scrambling so more help isn't needed and shooters aren't left open.
The Burn offense isn't something that's going to be hard to prepare for or figure out, and Notre Dame doesn't really cause any matchup problems. This system is effective for them, because it allows them to stay close and competitive in games, even when their talent/size/athleticism doesn't matchup.
The key to defending it is sticking with whatever your defensive principles are against the ball-screen, and staying patient. The worst-case scenario against the burn is that Notre Dame starts scoring, and you can't answer at the other end right away, and then frustration sets in while you wait another 25 seconds for them to shoot. When players get frustrated, they lose focus and easy buckets are allowed. If the Irish are able to mount any type of significant lead, it will feel twice as big, with the way they can kill the clock and keep the ball in their possession.
For any paranoid fan whose worst nightmare is Xavier running into a buzz-saw in the first round and getting blown off the court… breathe easy… this should be a close, competitive game. However, it might not be the most fun brand of basketball being played Friday night either.