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UVA Basketball Previews: Notre Dame

The ACC boasts two of the top matchups in the nation this weekend, with two matchups pitting top 25 teams. The other matchup is #5 Louisville against #18 UNC. But the one that we'll all be watching is #3 UVA against #13 Notre Dame. Can the Hoos continue their undefeated season? Can Notre Dame win another nail-biter? The battle of Notre Dame's potent offense against Virginia's elite defense will tell the story.

Simba figures to have his hands full guarding Jerian Grant.
Simba figures to have his hands full guarding Jerian Grant.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Game Information
Notre Dame
Location: South Bend, IN
Date: Saturday, January 10
Time: 6:00 ET
Channel: ESPN2 (also on WatchESPN)

After finishing last season with a sub-500 record and a 99th ranking on KenPom, expectations were not all that high for Notre Dame coming into this season. Even with the expected return of top player Jerian Grant, they entered the season ranked 70th on KenPom.

Through 7 games, this seemed accurate. The Irish had won 6 games over some bad teams (and a mediocre UMASS team). And they lost by a point to Providence. But then they beat Michigan State in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They crushed FSU, crushed Purdue. People started taking notice. Last week, they beat UNC (by 1) in Chapel Hill. They've jumped from 70 to 14 in KenPom's rankings.

They've done this entirely with offense. Their offense last year was solid, ranking 43rd in the nation, despite only having Grant for 12 games. This year, with Grant back, the offense has reached new heights. They are currently 2nd (behind Duke) in offensive efficiency. They are also 1st in effective FG%. This is despite not getting to the FT line very much. They shoot the ball extremely well. They are over 40% from 3 point range as a team, 5th in the nation. And they are shooting nearly 64% on 2 pointers, 1st in the nation. They also do not turn the ball over. Grant is one of the best offensive players in the country, ranking 13th in offensive efficiency and 87th in assist rate.

Defensively, the Irish were a mess last year, finishing 204th. This year, they've improved a bit, to 159th. Teams tend to shoot the ball well against them. They do not block many shots, nor generate many steals. All in all, this is still not a very good defense.

Now, when looking at all the above numbers, we need to consider that Notre Dame has played one of the softest schedules in the nation. And while that includes the games against Michigan State and UNC, beating up on the likes of Binghampton and Coppin State isn't impressive.

On paper, the Hoos match up well with the Irish. The Hoos biggest strength is defense, and in particular, a defense that contests shots and forces teams away from their best options. If the Hoos can do this against Notre Dame, they will be successful. The problem is that, historically, teams have beaten Tony Bennett's Hoos by lighting it up from the outside. And Notre Dame is certainly capable of that.

One place the Hoos will have an advantage is on the glass. Notre Dame does not rebound the ball particularly well, especially on the offensive glass. The Hoos, of course, are one of the top offensive rebounding teams in the nation, with the trio of Darion Atkins, Mike Tobey and Anthony Gill all ranking among the top 40 offensive rebounders in the nation. The Irish do not have a lot of size, with just 1 regular over 6'5". Their top rebounder is probably Pat Connaughton, a 6'5" wingman. Zach Auguste, their lone true "big", is a very good player and solid on the glass. But he can't handle the Hoos' trio all alone. (Not that the Hoos are likely to play all 3 at the same time, especially with Notre Dame's talent on the perimeter.)

The Irish also aren't particularly deep, with 3 players getting over 80% of the team's minutes. The 5 day break they'll have had before this game will aid them there, but they will be in dire straight if there is any foul trouble. Again, they do not foul much, although Auguste can get himself into trouble.

Notre Dame is getting a lot of love right now, and perhaps rightly so. That said, their big win @UNC was by just 1 point, and UNC missed 5 shots in the final minute that might've won it. Their win over Michigan State doesn't seem as impressive now that the Spartans are 10-5 and have fallen out of the Top 25 (still #17 on KenPom). And a 2OT home win over Georgia Tech isn't blowing anybody away either.

Notre Dame is no joke on offense. And the Hoos are no joke on defense. That, right there, should make this a good matchup. The difference may be the Hoos offense against Notre Dame's poor defense. KenPom is calling for a 4 point Hoos win, 66-62. A game in the low 60s would be right up the Hoos alley, especially considering Notre Dame's season low for points is 74. Playing tough defense on Notre Dame's shooters, and keeping PG Demetrious Jackson out of the lane will be the keys for the Hoos. Also, shooting the ball better than they did on Wednesday against NCSU.