The Hoos open ACC play today against Notre Dame at JPJ. For the Hoos, a disappointing beginning to the season saw them lose their 2nd game of the season to GW. However, they righted the ship and reeled off 10 straight wins including big wins over West Virginia, Villanova and Cal. Though there are still some concerns for the Hoos, the season is essentially right where Wahoo fans expected at this point.
Notre Dame is coming off an Elite Eight berth a year ago, although they lost arguably the two top contributors from that team, Jerian Grant (NY Knicks) and Pat Connaughton (Portland Trailblazers). Still, they return a strong team and have put together a 9-3 out of conference record including a win over a very good Iowa squad. However, they lost to Alabama and Monmouth.
As is the norm with Mike Brey's teams, the Fighting Irish are an offensive juggernaught, currently sporting the #6 offense in the nation. They shoot the ball well from 3 and from the interior. They don't turn it over and they crash the offensive glass. So far this year, they aren't shooting FTs very well, which has cost them. (Most of that is Auguste, who shoots around 60% from the stripe and leads the team in attempts by a wide margin.)
The Irish are led by PG Demetrious Jackson, a consensus lottery pick in the 2016 NBA draft. He leads the team in scoring at over 16 points per game, but he's really more of a pass-first PG. He's not the biggest of PGs, but he's strong and quick and he's able to use those attributes to get into the lane almost at will. A year ago, Jackson played second fiddle to Jerian Grant and still averaged 12 points and 3 assists. This year, though, it is his team.
On the interior, the Irish are led by senior Zach Auguste. He's 6'10" 245 and is one of the best rebounders in the nation. The Hoos have struggled at times this year with good big men and Auguste is as good as any they've faced. I could see Tony Bennett going big in this game with one of Jared Reuter, Jack Salt or Mike Tobey back in the starting lineup to help contend with Auguste.
Then again, Notre Dame doesn't really have another big man, as their 2nd tallest player is VJ Beachem, a 6'8" perimeter player. Freshman Matt Ryan is also 6'8" but is also a perimeter player. In fact, both of them are deadly outside shooters. Beachem is shooting over 47% from 3 and Ryan is at 36%.
Behind Auguste, the top interior player for the Irish is 6'5' Bonzie Colson, who averages over 7 rebounds per game and also blocks more than 1 shot per game. Colson is very strong and gets by despite his lack of size by using strength and positioning. Luckily for the Hoos, Isaiah Wilkins is essentially the antidote to Colson's game.
Along with Jackson in the backcourt is Steve Vasturia, another shooter. Vasturia is shooting over 37% from 3, but is also very good at using his strong body to get into the lane.
The 5 starters (Jackson, Vasturia, Colson, Beachem and Auguste) all play a lot of minutes, led by Jackson at over 35 per game. This team isn't very deep, which just 2 other players averaging even 6 minutes per game. Jackson's backup is freshman Rex Pflueger, who isn't really a PG. Sophomore Matt Ryan also sees some minutes at PG, but neither of them are much of a replacement for what Jackson brings.
In the two years that Notre Dame has been a member of the ACC, the Hoos have faced them 3 times. And won all 3. Now, we know that in the past two years, the Hoos haven't lost very many games at all. But Tony Bennett's success over Notre Dame isn't a coincidence. Teams that focus almost all of their attention on offense are going to struggle against the Hoos. Is it hard to score against the Pack Line defense, which means that you are spending tremendous amounts of energy on the offensive end, and yet are probably not having a great deal of success. And then you are still facing a very skilled offense on the other end, which little energy left to defend.
The Hoos this year have proven to be not quite as good on the defensive end as in previous years. That said, they are still #12 in the nation in defensive efficiency. Some of that has come from forcing more turnovers, but much of it is the same stingy pack-line defense. And though Notre Dame is known as being an offensive powerhouse, the Hoos are actually the more efficient offense right now, with the #4 offense in the nation.
The Hoos played on Wednesday while the Irish last played on Tuesday, so the Irish may have a bit of an edge in energy. But the Hoos are a much deeper team and frankly the 1 day shouldn't make much of a difference. The Hoos, though, have a quick turnover with a game @Virginia Tech on Monday and will want to conserve some energy for that one.
Notre Dame, of course, is not a team to overlook. Still, playing at home, with a big advantage on the bench and an advantage at head coach, should come out on top.