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Quarterfinals Date with the Irish

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Virginia opens up its 2020 ACC Tournament campaign with a date with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Mike Brey's lone win over UVA came in the 2017 ACCT quarterfinals, and a month ago they took UVA to overtime in JPJ. Are the Irish going to upset UVA to get to the conference semifinals?

Game Details:

Date/Time:Thursday, March 12th, 7:00 pm ET
Location:Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
TV:ESPN/2/ACCN

 

What 'They' Say

Vegas:Virginia -3, O/U 116.5, equates to ~60-57 UVA win
Torvik:Ranks ND #56, predicts a 57-56 UVA win, 60% confidence
KenPom:Ranks ND #56, predicts a 58-57 UVA win, 55% confidence

 

Depth Chart:

Starters
PG#3 Prentiss Hubb, 6'3" 175, SO
35.3 mpg, 12.1 ppg, 5.1 apg, 34.4 3P%
SG#10 TJ Gibbs, 6'3" 185, SR
35.0 mpg, 13.3 ppg, 3.3 apg, 42.0 3P%
SF#23 Dane Goodwin, 6'6" 200, SO
26.1 mpg, 10.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 43.3 FG%
PF#0 Rex Pflueger, 6'6" 218, SR
27.3 mpg, 5.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 33.6 FG%
C#33 John Mooney, 6'9" 245, SR
32.7 mpg, 16.2 ppg, 12.7 rpg, 46.0 FG%
Key Reserves
F#13 Nikola Djogo, 6'7" 222, SR
5.7 mpg, 0.6 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 12.5 FG%
F/C#14 Nate Laszewski, 6'10" 225, SO
21.0 mpg, 7.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 41.0 FG%
C#11 Juwan Durham, 6'11" 223, SR
17.5 mpg, 7.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 56.5 FG%

 

The ABC's of Notre Dame:

A) It all starts with Mooney. John Mooney is a walking double-double. The senior big man averaged over 17 points and 12 rebounds a game in ACC play as he broke through as an All-ACC 1st teamer, 3rd overall in votes (more even than ACC PoY Tre Jones). He went for 11 points and 12 rebounds in JPJ last month and is a lot for any of UVA's big men to handle. He is capable of stepping out to the 3-point line and knocking down a shot if given time; he's 3P% is only 25% in the ACC this year but he's a 35% career 3P-shooter. Not much of a shot blocker, but he's sound positionally and rarely fouls.

B) Their guard tandem is elite offensively. Sophomore Prentiss Hubb and Senior TJ Gibbs give Brey a dynamic pair of ballhandlers with which to run a diverse offense. It isn't just that they're clean facilitators (best in the ACC at the lowest turnover rate), but they also have the best assist rate in the league, assisting on over 58% of their buckets. Gibbs is an effective distributor (3.1 apg), but Hubb shines. The DC alum averaged 4.9 apg on the season, and stood out with 9 dimes against BC in their opening ACCT game. Oh, and did I mention they can also score? Second and third on the team in points behind Mooney, they're dangerous both from deep and getting to the rim.

C) Defense has been holding them back. Try not to pay too close of attention to their ability to hold us to *gag* 50 points in an overtime game in February. Or the fact that yesterday they held BC to just 58. On the whole this season defense is the reason they're quite likely just NIT bound. They pack in the paint with a conservative mix of man and zone, but as a result they're last in the league at defending the 3-point line, they don't force turnovers (14th in the ACC), they don't block shots (12th) as backup center Juwan Durham is really the only consistent rim protector, and they're merely average closing out the defensive glass. Again, being conservative, they're the best in the league at avoiding fouls, but on the whole KenPom ranks them as the third-worst defense in the entire league.

 

Their Season To Date

Notre Dame is 20-12 on the season, and finished the ACC regular season 10-10 in league play. They owe their situation on the wrong side of the bubble due to a total lack of signature wins. They played (per KenPom) the 5th-softest non-conference schedule in the country, with only a home win over fellow bubble team UCLA to show for it. In ACC play they are hurt by bad losses to BC and Wake, and went 0-5 against the league's Top 4 seeds. They finished their regular season with a home win over VT before opening ACC Tournament play Wednesday with a 80-58 win over Boston College.

 

Keys to getting the win:

1) Defend the 3-point line. Notre Dame is one of the league's better-shooting teams, ranking 5th in league play in collective 3P%, and just as importantly they hoist them at a high rate (45% of their shots are 3's, 3rd highest in the ACC). Against BC, the Irish used a 10 of 25 (40%) shooting day from deep to help open up the contest, and now that they feel zero'ed in on the Greensboro rims, will hope to continue that hot shooting into their game against UVA. Virginia must bring its league-best 3P% defense (29% allowed) to the tournament and keep the Irish's diverse array of shooters (only Djogo and Durham are unlikely to shoot) off balance.

2) Don't be afraid to play in the paint. The Irish want to make life difficult in the paint. Their 2P% defense is one of the few statistical areas in which their defense is respectable (48.6% allowed, 6th best in the ACC). Most teams still find a way to be aggressive and pound it inside anyways, then using that collapsed defense to set up their shooters. But UVA sometimes can be afraid to go inside against paint-denial defenses, instead settling for dribbling/passing around the perimeter for a late-shot-clock jumper. Virginia has the bigs and the breakdown PG to be aggressive inside, though of course once their must make smart choices to get the ball to the soft spot in or out of the zone. But playing through the middle of the zone is the best bet to unlocking their offense. Bonus is that it sets up our bigs for the occasional offensive rebound and bonus second chances.

3) Keep the edge. This one can't be quantified, and will be hard to truly review in the postgame analysis, but it needs to be addressed anyways. This game is going to have a very weird vibe. Let's leave aside the elephant in the room (or the elephant NOT in the room, as it were). The Irish have all the motivation and momentum in this. They're the little engine that couldn't when it comes to UVA; Mike Brey's record against UVA is abysmal, yet in many of those games they've been super close. Virginia's coming off an emotional streak of big, close games that saw us beat rivals UNC and VT on the road while notching marquee home wins over Duke and Louisville, and also surviving road scares against Pitt and Miami. The Hoos accomplished A LOT over the last few weeks, validating their season, securing their spot as a decent seed in the NCAAT, and sending Mamadi and Braxton out of Charlottesville with big wins. Conscious or not, Virginia might not quite have the "survival mode" motivation they've had the last couple of weeks; Notre Dame of course does.

Oh, and it's going to be an empty gym! It doesn't get any weirder than that, and with no crowd noise to motivate either team added to the specter of empty-gymmed NCAA Tournament games (heck, even the possibility of no NCAA Tournament games), it's hard to predict just where everyone's head is going to be at.

To some degree, once the flow of the game is established, a lot of that is going to go out the window. We've all played in empty or near-empty gyms before; practice and scrimmages, pick up games, intramurals, maybe some of us played for small high schools or colleges... competitive guys still go hard, guys still play defense and make buckets, everyone still wants to win. After the first 10 minutes or so, the weirdness is going to take a back seat to two teams that really want to win the game regardless. But Tony and the team must manage all of that better than the Irish do, especially down the stretch when the fresh team is supposed to be putting away the short-benched team that played 24 hours prior.

 

 

Predictions:

One reason I like playing Notre Dame is that because they're kind of a big team, we can go big without much mismatch on defense, as preferred. They'll start small with Pfleuger at the 4, but they've got no bench guards, and so when they bring in reserves, all are forwards or centers and as such Notre Dame will spend a lot of the game as big if not bigger than we are at the 3 and 4 spots. Key and Stattmann can log good minutes at the 3 without giving up speed or athleticism to smaller, quicker guards as we might against other opponents. With that said, their bigger lineup also neutralizes our offensive advantage in the post. It's a matchup that favors both defenses, hence our abysmally-low-scoring first match-up with them last month.

But Notre Dame also manages to make things ugly against us. Last year they came into JPJ and played our title team to a narrow single-digit loss. Two years ago they nearly spoiled Zay, Nigel, and Devon's Senior Day. The Irish are a team that has trouble getting over the hump, sometimes in individual games, sometimes when it comes to a season as a whole. But make no mistake they're often right their fighting. And with three seniors, they know that this game against UVA is do-or-die for their one final shot at the NCAA Tournament, likely needing to beat both us and Louisville (hypothetically on Friday night) to get back into Bubble discussion. We are going to get their backs-against-the-wall shot.

As we have been saying for months, this UVA team plays to the level of its opponents for better or worse, ending up in tight battles against both league bottom-feeders and nationally ranked powerhouses alike. No reason to expect this game against Notre Dame to be any different. But just like I decided against Louisville, I'm done betting against Kihei and Mamadi at the moment, though of course it won't be pretty.

Hoos Win 55-53