Before the season, I said that Notre Dame would not be as good as they had been the previous two years, where they made deep runs into the NCAA tournament.
Yeah, about that…
Virginia Tech, after regaining some traction in Tuesday’s win over Syracuse, will host the red hot Fighting Irish. Notre Dame (15-2/4-0) comes into this game ranked at #20 in the AP Poll, and are one of two undefeated teams remaining in ACC play. Their only losses on the season have been Villanova and Purdue, two very good teams. Because of the road woes the Hokies constantly endure, winning this game is of immense importance if they want a tournament berth. Beating a ranked team will help ease the minds of the committee after last week’s tough two game road stretch.
Notre Dame’s sixth ranked offense (in efficiency) has led the way for them, but they have been holding serve defensively. The Irish thrive on stringing together multiple defensive stops and going 7-0 or 8-0 runs to take control of games. After halftime against Miami, Notre Dame came out of the gates with 10 straight points and seized momentum. Against an elite defensive team, those small runs add up. Virginia Tech likely will have a tough time winning this one if they are trailing at the end of the first half.
It has been nearly impossible to shoot the ball well against Notre Dame this season. Ten of their seventeen opponents have not shot over 40% on their defense and opponents only average an impressively low 39.5% from the field against them. The Irish deploy a zone defense which is good news for the Hokies having practiced against what they will face in Tuesday’s game against Syracuse. Notre Dame possesses excellent size in addition to their active hands. Chris Clarke had a field day as the high man in the zone on Tuesday, but the Irish have watched film will be more prepared to contain him.
If Virginia Tech wants to have success offensively, they will need to do the same thing they have done in all their wins: move the basketball. This was most prevalent against Syracuse – over 71% of the Hokies’ field goals were assisted. That is a trend which needs to continue, not just against Notre Dame, but in the coming weeks as well. Penetration, kick-outs, and extra passes are needed every possession in order to win games in the ACC because every night presents a tough challenge.
Notre Dame has excelled defending the three-point line this season, only allowing teams to shoot 33% from downtown. However, Clemson and Pittsburgh each eclipsed the 38% mark against the Irish. The Hokies remain one of the hottest shooting teams in the nation (40% from three) and at home, they have generally been lights out. I would not expect them to seek out three pointers, but there will be opportunities to punish the Irish from deep, especially if they stay in a zone defense.
The key players will once again be Chris Clarke and Zach LeDay. The penetration they create and how often they get to the rim will determine the effectiveness of the offense. Clarke has been on a tear the past eight games, averaging around 16/7/6. Virginia Tech needs to get a few buckets inside early to force the zone to collapse, then find open perimeter players and play off that. Notre Dame is one of the better shot blocking teams in the nation, registering a 11% Block Rate, but the Hokies have the athletes to be able to finish in traffic.
The Hokies’ defense looked worlds better against Syracuse after giving up 197 points on their road trip. Notre Dame is a much better offensive team and will be a much tougher test for this defense. With four players averaging over 14 PPG, the scoring comes from everywhere.
Leading scorer Bonzie Colson has done an excellent job replacing Zach Auguste in the Fighting Irish lineup. Colson is averaging a double-double with 15.9/10.8, just extraordinary numbers. He will get most of his numbers from the midrange and the paint, taking under two 3’s a game (31%). Clarke will likely draw Colson as his assignment, and while the sophomore is more lean than Colson, he has the length advantage. Colson is dangerous on the offensive glass with a 13.0% OREB Rate, so Clarke will need to be strong on his boxouts.
Given the other scorers, Virginia Tech will need to switch their defense at some point to keep Notre Dame off balance. VJ Beachem is one of the better forwards in the conference, averaging 14.5 points per. Despite standing at 6-8, Beachem likes to hit outside jumpers. He takes about six a game and hits 37% from downtown. His shooting volume has dropped in conference play and is only shooting 42% from the field in those four games. He may not be the primary threat, but he is a good finisher around the rim, shows nice touch on midrange jumpers, and has more mobility than you think.
Notre Dame also boasts the formidable backcourt tandem of Matt Farrell and Steve Vasturia, who seems to make huge strides every season. Both players hit on over 40% of their downtown attempts, making them a dangerous duo in pick and roll actions. Farrell averages 14 PPG, but has been their best playmaker, averaging 5.5 assists and has a 29% Assist Percentage. Vasturia, at 6-6, is a lethal scorer averaging 15.8 during conference play. There isn’t a shot he’s met he didn’t like. It is important to note that neither player has been very efficient over the last few games, but that is why Notre Dame emphasizes defense. They might miss some shots, but they’ll force you to miss more.
Despite having four big names, Notre Dame has primarily only used a 7-to-8 man rotation. Everyone else averages under 4 PPG, but they fill their roles nicely, specifically on defense. Matt Ryan and Rex Pflueger are both sharpshooters off the bench, knocking down over 41% of their threes.
Notre Dame is loaded with shooters, but they make it count the most at the foul line.
The Irish shoot 84.1% from the FT line.— Jawhar Ali (@soundslikejafar) January 13, 2017
That's better than every NBA team. Closest is SA (82.3%)
Can't afford to put ND in bonus early.
For a college team, that is insane. Their top seven players all hit at least 70% from the foul line, with three of them (Colson, Vasturia, Farrell) making at least 89% of their attempts. The Hokies put Syracuse in the bonus early in the first half, but luckily it didn’t cost them. The story may end a little differently against the Irish.
The football team went to South Bend and got the win, so why can’t the basketball team do the same against the Irish? I find it hard to pick against the Hokies at home, where they have just been so clean and sharp with their play. Notre Dame has been in a little bit of a scoring rut recently but have won due to their defense. I think the Hokies’ pace eventually gets to Notre Dame, who will be playing their second road game in four days – like the Hokies did when they were blown out in Tallahassee. I see this one being a little closer.