Despite playing in the ACC with perennial powerhouses Duke, UNC, Louisville and others, this appears to be the toughest two-game stretch the Hoos have had since KenPom began tracking in 2002. Last year, the Hoos got Miami (ranked #15 in KenPom) and UNC (#6) in back-to-back games, but UNC was a home game. I cannot find a single instance of back-to-back road games that compares to facing Notre Dame (#18) and Villanova (#3).
Notre Dame is sitting at 17-3 overall and 6-1 in the ACC. Their ACC results look very similar to Virginia’s, except they managed to beat Pitt in OT and their FSU loss was on the road. They also lost to Villanova and Purdue back in December. Those two games were both neutral courts, meaning Notre Dame is undefeated at home this year.
Notre Dame’s success this year has come as a surprise to many, including the college basketball media after losing their top two players from last year, Demetrius Jackson (NBDL) and Zach Auguste (Turkey). Even KenPom had them ranked #47 to start the season. That team, however, was the 9th best offense in the nation by offensive efficiency and Notre Dame returned the other three members of the starting rotation. The two newcomers to the starting five, Matt Ferrell and Rex Pflueger, began to get a lot more playing time late last season.
Farrell, in particular, has played a big role this year. In two previous years, he’s averaged less than 10 minutes per game and shot just 12-for-40 (30%) from behind the arc. This year, averaging over 33 minutes per game, he’s up to 43% and is also proving to be a very good distributor. He’s averaging 5.7 assists and 2.6 turnovers per game to go along with his 14 points per game. He’s not particularly big, nor is he overly athletic, but he’s a smart player, he shoots well off screens and he has learned how to run an offense. His play has helped open things up for fellow junior Bonzie Colson, who leads the team at 15.4 points per game and 10.9 rebounds per game. Though just 6’5”, Colson thrives on the inside. He’s among the best rebounders in the nation, and a capable shot blocker. Colson can also make a three, though he’s shooting just 31% and doesn’t step out there very often. He's also a very very good FT shooter at 87%.
In fact, the entire Irish team is good FT shooters as they are collectively at almost 83%, tops in the nation. They are also ranked 7th in the nation in 3 point shooting. As we know, the easiest way to beat the Pack Line is to make shots. That includes 3 point shots and free throws. Easy shots are tough to come by against the Hoos, especially on the inside. So being able to make outside shots and being able to convert on the opportunities inside and at the charity stripe become even more important than they might otherwise be.
When it comes to three-point shooting, the Irish are led by senior Steve Vasturia. He has always been a good shooter - averaging 39% for his career - but this year he’s taken it to another level and is lighting it up at 44%. He’s also become a much more efficient player on the inside, and is averaging 15 points and three assists per game. Vasturia is also one of the best FT shooters in the nation, at over 92%.
Pflueger is Vasturia’s wing compatriot, shooting over 41% from outside, with more than half of his shots coming from behind the arc. Pflueger, at this point, is mostly a shooter and doesn’t do much else offensively. He is, however, a good perimeter defender, probably the best the Irish have to offer. Also living on the wing is 6’8” senior V.J. Beachem. Beachem is a stretch four and has also taken over 50% of his shots from behind the arc. He’s a decent interior defender, but struggles to defend on the perimeter. And despite his height, he’s not a very good rebounder. Probably because he's rail thin (201 lbs.).
This is a rare game this year where the Hoos are outclassed on the perimeter, but have the advantage on the inside. Colson is a beast, but he’s used to having a pretty big quickness advantage on the inside. That is not the case against Isaiah Wilkins. On the other hand, Wilkins is used to giving up size and strength when he’s covering somebody on the interior. Again, that is not the case against Bonzie Colson. Just like last time out, when Jack Salt was able to neutralize Georgia Tech’s leading scorer Ben Lammers, Wilkins could very well shut down Colson, which would severely hamper Notre Dame’s offense. At the very least, Wilkins should make things difficult for Colson inside, which would also make things more difficult for the Irish perimeter players.
If Wilkins is able to keep Colson corralled inside, the Hoos’ perimeter defenders will have an easier time with their men outside. As we know, it is easier to find open looks outside when shots are dropping inside. The Hoos have the size to match up with Notre Dame’s perimeter player without sacrificing quickness. Marial Shayok’s length makes him an ideal matchup for Beachem’s perimeter prowess. That would leave Devon Hall guarding the 6’6” 212 pound Vasturia and Darius Thompson guarding 6’6” 200 pound Pflueger. Finally, London Perrantes has a pretty big size (and experience) advantage against Ferrell. The only matchup there that seems to favor the Irish is Pflueger, who is the lowest usage player among the Irish regulars. Though Pflueger is a good defender, Thompson has a quickness advantage on him. Similarly, V.J. Beachem isn’t really capable of guarding Shayok on the perimeter. Shayok could have success getting inside or pulling up for his mid-range shot. The Irish could counter by swapping Colson onto Shayok and Beachem onto Wilkins. That would take the Irish’s best shot blocker out of the equation though.
The Irish could also go big, with 6’10” 255 lb Martinas Geben in the middle, sliding everybody else up a spot, with Pflueger going to the bench. This takes some outside shooting away, but adds a real banger inside. Geben, from Lithuania, is a good scorer and rebounder inside and would give Jack Salt a run for his money in toughness. Averaging just 16 minutes per game, Geben is the 2nd leading rebounder on the team. That highlights the biggest weakness of the team. If your best rebounder is 6’5” (and isn’t named Barkley), you’re probably going to have trouble inside. Though they aren’t too bad on the offensive glass, largely due to Colson’s quickness, they really struggle on the defensive glass. In their 3 losses, they’ve been crushed on the offensive glass. FSU (34%), Purdue (39%) and Nova (37%) were all well above average on the offensive glass against the Irish. None of those teams are particularly strong on the offensive glass, though neither are the Hoos. When the matchups favor it, Tony Bennett has not hesitated to send more guys to crash the offensive glass. Both Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt are strong on the offensive glass as is Jarred Reuter, though I don’t really see a role for Reuter in this matchup.
As a team, the Irish average almost 7.5 steals per game. That ranks just 64th nationally, but since Notre Dame is just 228th in the country in pace, they are actually 35th in steal rate. (The Hoos are 194th in steals, but 87th in steal rate.) Similar to the Hoos, Notre Dame’s defense isn’t about steals. They play tight defense on the perimeter, which leads to steals, but they generally do not gamble for steals. They play straight up and when the opportunity presents itself, they’ll go for the steal. None of the Irish players are particularly adept at generating turnovers, but pretty much all of them are decent. The Hoos have struggled in a few games this year with turnovers, but have kept it in check the past two games and overall are 14th in the nation in lowest turnover rate. Taking care of the basketball is going to be key in this game, because Notre Dame’s offense is so good that you cannot give them extra possessions.
This may begin to sound like a broken record, but this is a matchup between two very good shooting teams. The Hoos are a better defensive team and have more depth, but the Irish are at home and are probably better at shooting the basketball. Most likely, whichever team shoots better from outside is going to come out on top.