StLou's Previews: Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Virginia celebrates Senior Night by hosting a desperate, talented, and finally-pretty-healthy Irish squad that is playing every game for its NCAA Tournament life. Will Virginia bounce back from a draining road win to be ready to take the best shot from an upset-minded Notre Dame?

Game Details:

Date/Time: Saturday, March 3rd, 4:00 PM Eastern
Location: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, VA
TV: WatchESPN, ACCN (local affiliates)

What 'They' Say

Vegas: VIRGINIA -10, O/U 119.5
TAPE: Ranks ND #45 Predicts a 71-56 UVA win, 91% confidence
KenPom: Ranks ND #31 Predicts a 63-51 UVA win, 86% confidence


Depth Chart:


PG #5 Matt Farrell, 6-1 175, SR
35.5 mpg, 17.1 ppg, 5.4 apg, 42% 3P%
SG #10 TJ Gibbs, 6-3 188, SO 
37.5 mpg, 15.9 ppg, 3 apg, 41% 3P%
SF #0 Rex Pflueger, 6-6 206, JR 
32.7 mpg, 8.3 ppg, 3.2 apg, 33% 3P% 
PF #35 Bonzie Colson, 6-6 224, SR 
32.7 mpg, 20.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 53% FG% 
C #23 Martinas Geben, 6-10 252, SR 
25 mpg, 11.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 60% FG% 

Key Reserves


#13 Nikola Djogo, 6-7 211, SO
15.6 mpg, 2.9 ppg, 0.8 apg, 26% 3P%
PF #1 Austin Torres, 6-7 235, SR 
11 mpg, 2.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 61% FG% 
PF  #12 Elijah Burns, 6-8 238, JR 
10.7 mpg, 2.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 41% FG% 
C #33 John Mooney, 6-9 248, SO 
16.5 mpg, 6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 50% FG% 


The ABC's of ND:

A) Injuries have derailed their season. No team in the ACC has been harder bit by the injury bug this season (and that's saying something, as quite a few starters have gone down across the league this year). The Irish were projected to be one of the ACC's top tier squads, but then the wheels fell off. It started when star forward, and preseason all-American, Bonzie Colson suffered a fractured foot in a January 2nd practice and missed 8 weeks. Later that week, veteran PG Matt Farrell suffered a sprained ankle in a game against NC State; he'd miss three games, come back to play two, then miss another two with a bone bruise. Finally, 5-star freshman wing DJ Harvey, who'd stepped into a starting role with Colson out (scoring 17 in his first start against NC State), went down January 16th against Louisville with a bone bruise in his left knee; the injury eventually required season-ending surgery for cartilage repair.  The Irish had one consistent starting lineup through the first 13 games, before this mess started. In the 16 games since, they've had 9 different lineups. That they're in the vicinity of .500 in ACC play after all that is a testament to coach Brey. Farrell has had a few weeks to round back into form by now, and Bonzie Colson returned to action for his Senior Night on Wednesday, showing little rust as he racked up 12 points, 9 rebounds, and 3 blocks in just 21 minutes of action.

An interesting subplot is how these injuries influence the NCAA Tournament selection committee. The committee is allowed to weigh records differently for a team that had a bad injury stretch if that team is now healthy and playing better. Should ND finish the season strong with a healthy Bonzie Colson playing a major role, the committee may devalue their January 7-game losing streak just enough to let the Irish slip in as an at-large, but they'll need to do some damage first. That means either a deep run in the ACC tourney, and/or (drumroll) upsetting the nation's #1 team; expect the Irish to approach this game with desperate ferocity.

B) They finally have a big man presence again. The Irish's system is built around a 4-out concept (think Villanova's) and works best with an effective center manning the post. They last had this presence in Zach Auguste, who graduated in 2016. Last year, the Irish struggled to find anyone to adequately fill the middle for them, and eventually caved and put 6'6" wing-forward Bonzie Colson at the 5, an ultra-small lineup that couldn't rim protect or rebound in the slightest. But this year they've benefitted from a beakout season from senior Martinas Geben (who recruitniks may remember as a prime Bennett candidate for the 5-spot 2014 scholarship that instead went to Jack Salt). The Lithuanian import has started every game this year, and has come out of nowhere to be one of the ACC's best centers, 9th in the ACC in eFG%, 5th in TS%, 1st in O-Rebounding, 3rd in D-Rebounding, and 16th in block %. He's allowed ND to play very balanced ball on both sides of the court, and Bonzie Colson to play the 4 where he's best suited.

C) This team is very 3-point dependent. Like Brey teams before it, this guard-heavy offense is built around spreading the floor and using ball movement to create open jump shot looks. This is reflected in a couple of statistics.  They're 3rd in the ACC in percentage of shots taken from 3-point range (42.2% of FGAs), 2nd in the ACC in the percentage of their points coming off three pointers (38.2%), and 2nd in the ACC is percentage of shots coming off an assist (58%). Their shooting percentages aren't elite, shooting only 36.3% as a team from deep (9th in ACC play) and 46.3% from 2 (10th), but they do have the potential to get hot, as evidenced in their 14-23 (61%) 3-point shooting effort at Boston College two weeks ago, so the perimeter defense has to be locked in regardless.

Their season to date:

Notre Dame is 18-12 on the year, 8-9 in the ACC. Their best wins are over Wichita State (Neutral site), NC State, @ Syracuse, and over FSU. THey've got bad losses to Ball State, Indiana (both at full strength), and GT (missing both Farrell and Colson). Most recently they've beaten ACC bottom feeders Wake Forest and Pitt. 

Keys to getting the win:

1) Control the defensive glass. The traditionally small ND lineups are usually pretty weak corraling offensive rebounds, but not this year. The Irish are the ACC's 3rd best O-rebounding team, corraling over a third of their misses, which is largely built around Geben's 3.6 O-Reb's a game (14.7%), but they're getting contributions from Pflueger and Mooney as well. There certainly seems to be a tactical focus on it this year from Brey. Amplifying this is Colson's potential impact. When healthy, Colson is a brutally effective offensive rebounder, using his strength and IQ to beat much bigger players consistently. The Hoos are going to have to pay particular attention to bodying up ND's front court; Salt must maintain good position on Geben, keeping him 5' from the rim at all times and not abandoning him to chase shot blocks, but our forwards must also be diligent to combat their team approach. The Hoos have vastly improved their D-Rebounding since a disastrous stretch in January (Cuse, UNC, and NC State averaged 17 O-Reb's apiece), but that's also coincided with playing teams much weaker on the glass. ND is in the ACC's Top 3 for a reason, and Virginia has to rise to the level of the competition in this area.

2) Mind the kick-out. This ND squad, as discussed above, wants to bomb away, and it likes to do so off the pass. The Irish are going to look to find open shooters out of kick-out scenarios; maybe it's a driving guard, maybe it's a big man on the post-up. Either way, perimeter defenders need to be aware that when they go to help on a ball-handler, their original man is likely drifting in the opposite direction to find a comfortable spot to launch a catch-and-shoot 3. Now, this much ball movement can actually be a good thing, as this Hoo defense has great hands when opponents try to pass through traffic. But ND is a better coached, more experienced, better executing team than most, so the Hoos really have to be smart about how they help and play passing lanes against a ND squad with some excellent ball-handlers, especially Farrell (5.6:2.4 A:TO in ACC play), Gibbs (3.2:1.9), and Pflueger (3.8:1.8).

3) Break down their defense with ball movement. This has historically been our attack plan against Brey's zones before, and it typically works out pretty well. Running deliberate, crisp sets through the gaps of their zones (they'll toss out a couple variations) will move the pieces and get open looks both at the rim and from deep. In our 2017 win, we had 13 assists on 25 makes (52%). In 2016 it was 17 assists on 28 makes (61%). It's been a recipe for attacking Notre Dame this year as well, as Indiana assisted on 59% of their buckets in their upset win, and Dartmouth assisted on 75% of their 32 makes in a near upset, both against a full-strength Irish team. Be aggressive attacking the gaps, don't settle for perimeter passing, and look to distribute from those gaps to find the open scorers. 



This is a hard game to call. Bonzie's seemingly full strength return on Wednesday will imbue the Irish with a renewed sense of focus and self confidence. The metrics may have them on the outside looking in for a tourney at-large bid, but they don't agree. They fully believe that a healthy Bonzie, an all-American level player, is a total game changer, that they can beat anyone anywhere with him, and that an upset over us, plus a couple wins in Brooklyn next week, will do the trick to get them in. That means we're going to get the same "best shot" that we got from VT a couple weeks ago, from Louisville on Thursday, 40 full minutes of energy and hustle from a veteran opponent that knows in its core it needs this win. 

At the same time, Notre Dame is a program that Tony Bennett has largely owned since they joined the ACC (5-1 in the prior four years). Last year's loss to the Irish in the ACC Tourney was the first time Brey had beaten Bennett, and that came in a game Wilkins was injuried and our team was coming apart at the seams. In the regular season contests before that, though, ND lost by 17 to us on their floor in 2017, by 11 on our floor in 2016, and by 6 on their floor in 2015, and those were all tournament level Irish teams that won 26, 24, and 32 games respectively those seasons. 

So what's going to win out? The greater "need to" of the experienced and talented visitor? Or the historical system dominance of Bennett's Pack Line and Sides Motion over Brey's Spread and zones? I fully expect this one to be contested to the bitter end, 40 minutes of brutal physicality (frankly this Thurs/Sat of Louisville and ND is such a perfect preparation for the NCAA Tournament weekends coming soon). Pains me to say, but I think the Louisville win took a lot out of the Hoos tank, while ND only played Pitt last and even gets an additional day off to prep. That's a difference maker, and Virginia battles but drops its first Senior Night game in years.

Hoos Lose - 62-57