After a road game in Cameron Indoor Stadium—perhaps the toughest environment in college basketball—the No. 3 Virginia Cavaliers head to South Bend, Indiana for a road test against Notre Dame. That’s a much less intimidating environment, especially this year. Sure, there have been seasons when they were tough to beat at home, but this is not one of them. All time, the Hoos are 11-2 against the Irish.
Right now, the Irish are 11-8 (1-5 ACC). They’re 10-3 at home, with losses to Syracuse and North Carolina State (not bad) and Radford (bad). Overall, their best win is over Purdue on a neutral floor. Purdue has a lot of love from the metrics, but they’ve lost six games (three to ACC schools). On the bright side, Notre Dame has only been blown out once, a 15 point loss to Virginia Tech which was a two point game at halftime.
In that win over Purdue, Notre Dame shot lights out, making 11-of-21 (52%) from three and 25-of-29 (86%) from the FT line. On the season, the Irish are shooting just 33% from three (225th nationally) and 74% from the FT line (56th nationally). The best way to pull off an upset is to simply knock down shots.
The Irish are coming off a two-point loss in Atlanta against Georgia Tech. They trailed by nine in the first half, then led by two at halftime. Then they trailed by 11 with five minutes to go before a 9-0 run got them back into it. They actually had two possessions down by two with a chance to tie or take the lead, but were unable to.
Yes, the Yellow Jackets aren’t good, but considering the state of Notre Dame’s basketball team, that isn’t a bad result. The Irish are down one of their senior leaders in Rex Pflueger, big man Juwon Durham (a UCONN transfer), and freshman wing Robby Carmody. Pflueger and Carmody are out for the season. Durham is expected back, but not for this game.
This was probably not going to be a great Notre Dame squad after the loss of Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell and Martinas Geben. Despite all of the departures in addition to the injuries, they’ve been able to stay above water.
A big part of that is the emergence of big man John Mooney. As a sophomore last year, he averaged just 15 minutes per game, putting up five points and four rebounds per game (keep in mind that Colson missed almost half the season with an injury). This year, Mooney has been one of the best players in the ACC, averaging a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Both of those lead the team. Mooney is an inside-out player who can score inside but also knock down a jumper. He’s actually leading the team in three point shooting, at 42.5%, on about two attempts per game. Mooney is also a solid shot blocker, though he’s not a great man defender on the interior.
Here are two examples of Mooney scoring. He’s not a back-to-the-basket guy, especially not against somebody like Jack Salt. But he can face up and score in a variety of ways, and they’ll use him both the pick n’ roll and the pick n’ pop.
The Irish’s second leading scorer is junior swingman T.J. Gibbs. Gibbs may not technically be the PG, but he handles the ball a lot. He leads the team in assists and attempts. He sports a nearly 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which is outstanding. He also shoots just 34% from the field, which is very much not outstanding. He takes over half his shots from downtown (in ACC play, it’s almost 75%) and shoots 35% That’s actually not bad. But he shoots just 33% on twos, and that is bad. A year ago, Gibbs shot over 40% from downtown and about 40% overall. He was not the primary ball-handler though and spent more time going to the rim. His FT rate has dropped significantly this year. Interestingly, Gibbs did not play in the Irish’s only ACC win.
Gibbs isn’t the only Irish player who shoots a lot of threes. In fact, the Irish are 44th nationally in percentage of shots taken from deep. Freshman PG Prentiss Hubb takes more than half his shots from downtown, where he makes just 25%. Another pair of freshmen, Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski, combine to shoot over half their shots from downtown and they make about 35%. Both of them have reputations of being outstanding shooters. They’ll probably get there, but right now they aren’t showing it. Either one can get hot though. Laszewski made 4-of-9 from downtown against the Yellow Jackets.
This is why they miss Pflueger. Not only is he a veteran and a team leader, but he’s also a guy who can knock down shots. Although he made just 32% last year, he was up around 40% the previous year and was making 39% this year before the injury. Goodwin is getting those minutes now, and a lot of the same shots. However, Goodwin isn’t nearly the defender or all around player that Pflueger is (who actually leads the team in assist rate).
Much like last time out against Wake Forest, expect to see a fair amount of zone from Notre Dame. The Irish are doing it because of the lack of depth due to the injuries, but head coach Mike Brey would rather play man defense. Here’s an example of the zone:
In this case, they are trying to trap the ball-handler on the perimeter. That leaves an open shooter. This is too common. The Irish are 41st in the nation in two point defense, but 156th in three point defense. If Virginia shoots like they’re capable of, we may see Mike Brey go away from the zone.
Expect to see a lot of Kihei Clark this time out, matching up with Gibbs. Clark should be able to keep Gibbs out of the paint, which can frustrate him and turn him into a jump shooter, which isn’t his game. That’ll put Kyle Guy on Hubb, with Jerome and Hunter guarding the wings. Obviously, though, that’s not the lineup all game long.
Expect to see a good deal of Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff. Each of them have the ability to score both inside and outside, which is valuable against the zone. Additionally, both have more quickness than Jack Salt, which can help deter Mooney from getting to the basket.
Ultimately, as with many road games, this one could come down to making some shots. Notre Dame gives up too many open threes, and Virginia has the shooters to knock those shots down. If the Irish extend the zone, then Virginia will get De’Andre Hunter and Braxton Key in the middle of the zone where they can both do a lot of damage. Either scenario should be enough against an undermanned Notre Dame squad.