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THE BIG PREVIEW: No. 1 Virginia welcomes Notre Dame for senior day matchup

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Senior night is always emotional in college basketball. This year, for the Hoos, it may be ever moreso. Both Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins will play their final home game ever on Saturday afternoon. They’ll be honored before the game, which always gets the juices flowing.

Sometimes, that emotion can be tough to deal with once the game starts. That hasn’t generally been the case for the Hoos. A year ago, London Perrantes scored a game high 22 in a 67-42 win over Pitt. Two years ago, senior night honored Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill, Evan Nolte and Mike Tobey (also Caid Kirven). Brogdon had 17, Gill had 16, and Tobey had 15 points and 20 rebounds. Even Kirven hit a three as the Hoos knocked off Louisville 68-46.

In other words, senior night has been kind to the Hoos of late, and this year Notre Dame comes to Charlottesville. The Fighting Irish have been plagued by injuries all year, which has led to an 18-12 record (8-9) in the ACC. Considering all they’ve been through, that record actually isn’t that bad. But, they haven’t beaten anybody good since beating Wichita St. back in November to win the Maui Invitational. In the ACC, their best win is a home win over Florida State.

But, they’re getting healthy just in time. Bonzie Colson, the preseason ACC Player of the Year, finally returned on Wednesday for his senior night. He hadn’t played in 2018, as he was dealing with a broken foot. He played 21 minutes against Pitt on Wednesday, scoring 12 points with nine rebounds and three blocks. That’s Pitt though, and they’re terrible.

Last year, Bonzie and the Irish knocked off the Hoos in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament. Bonzie had 21 and 10. He had 20 points in the regular season meeting, which the Hoos won. Colson was having an MVP type season before the injury. He’s averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds to go along with almost two steals and over two blocks. He’s shooting 53% from the field and 80% from the stripe. Now, it’s possible those numbers would’ve gone down in ACC play, but he did have 25 and 11 against Wichita State.

Obviously, Colson isn’t the only player on the team. Fellow senior Matt Farrell took over as the team’s leader and best player with Colson out. Farrell also missed a few games in the middle of the ACC season with an ankle injury. He’s averaging 17 points and five assists, though his usage rate figures to drop with Colson back. He scored 14 points in 37 minutes against Pitt. Farrell is an outstanding outside shooter (41%) and takes over 60% of his shots from out there. At 6’1” 175, he doesn’t really have the size to match up with Ty Jerome, but he is a strong defender.

If Farrell can’t handle Jerome, then sophomore T.J. Gibbs will probably end up on him. Gibbs is a strong defender, though he’d also give up size to Jerome. Gibbs is also an outstanding three point shooter (41%) and can also create going to the rim, though he isn’t the best interior finisher. He’ll look to draw fouls or kick out to shooters.

The guy who benefited most from Colson’s injury was John Mooney. The 6’9 power forwad has a strong face up game and shoots 45% from three. He’s also capable of scoring on the inside, though he isn’t nearly the beast inside that Colson is. Mooney played just eight minutes against Pitt, though he scored eight points on 3-for-6 shooting and grabbed four offensive rebounds. That’s in line with his playing time before Colson was hurt. Mooney had a season high 18 against UNC, on 6-for-6 shooting from three.

Joining Colson and Mooney up front is Lithuanian big man Martinas Geben. Geben can score in the post and is strong on the glass. He’s a decent shot blocker, but isn’t really a great defender beyond that. He hasn’t done much against Virginia in his career, which is largely due to Jack Salt. I guess New Zealand tops Lithuania.

The top two wings for the Irish are Rex Pflueger and Nikolas Djogo. Freshman DJ Harvey was supposed to be in the mix there as well, but he’s out with a knee injury. Harvey was originally due back in four weeks, but hasn’t played since January 16th and apparently still isn’t ready to return.

Pflueger is the starter, but his play has dropped off this year. He’s a shooter and a strong defender and a decent all around player. But without the interior presence of Colson, Plfueger hasn’t had the open shots. Djogo is a Canadian who redshirted last year because he was far too raw. He’s athletic and can hit an outside shot, but he’s made just 13-for-50 from downtown (26%) and hasn’t done a whole lot better inside (37%). He’s big and strong and hits the glass. He’s also active defensively and blocks shots. But he’s still raw and doesn’t tend to play as much against better teams. He’s the only Notre Dame player with the size to guard DeAndre Hunter.

Hunter is a big key to this game. He’s dealing with a few nagging injuries (ankle and wrist), so it wouldn’t be too surprising to see Tony hold him out of this game. But then again, the Hoos don’t play again until Thursday, so he’ll get a break one way or the other. The Hoos have absolutely nothing to play for, other than a win on senior night and keeping that No. 1 ranking.

Notre Dame is a strong shooting team, and now that they have their All-ACC post player back, they’re dangerous. Defensively, Colson doesn’t really move the needle for them. Especially against a Virginia team that doesn’t really have a post scorer. The Hoos should be able to keep pace if they can knock down some shots.

The Irish would like to stay out of a Tuesday game at the ACC Tourney next week. A win here would help with that, though not guarantee it. They aren’t going to make the NCAA tournament without winning the ACC tournament (or putting together a nice run), and beating the No. 1 team in the nation would be a nice confidence boost going into next week.