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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Virginia dominated the last performance. Is this going to be a repeat?

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After a tough weekend with back to back games against Duke and UNC, things get a bit easier for Virginia Cavaliers basketball with a home tilt against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday afternoon. This is not meant as a knock on Notre Dame. I’m sure Mike Brey would readily admit that his team is not on the same level as their ACC brethren right now.

The Irish currently sit at 89th on KenPom. They are 13-11 overall, and 3-8 in the ACC. They have won two of their past three, including their first road win of the year, a six point win over Boston College.

This is the second matchup between these two teams this season. Heading into the first matchup, the Irish ranked 71st on KenPom. Despite a 2-3 record since then, they’ve fallen in the rankings. A big part of that fall was the 27-point home loss in that matchup.

The Irish’s struggles should not be a big surprise. They were 58th on KenPom coming into the season, but they have lost arguably their best player in senior Rex Pfleuger to a season-ending injury. They also lost UCONN transfer Juwan Durham to an injury which kept him out for most of January. He’s back, though he’s played just 33 minutes in three games since returning.

The Irish are led by big man John Mooney. He’s averaging a double double with 15 points and 10 rebounds per game. He had exactly those numbers against the Hoos, but it took him 15 shots to get there. He made 3/4 from downtown, but just 3/11 from inside. That’s against the norm for a guy who’s generally much more dangerous on the inside than the outside.

Even though Mooney is, far and away, the best Notre Dame has, fellow junior T.J. Gibbs continues to lead the team in shots. He’s got the ball in his hands a lot, and he’s got the mentality of a scorer. Problem is, he isn’t a very good shooter and without many other weapons, teams are keying on his drives. He’s shooting 32% on treys, which isn’t great, but also isn’t awful. But he’s shooting just 37% inside the arc, and that is horrid. His saving grace is that he gets to the line a good amount and makes his free throws. His TS% (true shooting percentage, a metric used to determine a player’s actual shooting ability, taking into account 3 pointers, free throws, etc) is just 47.5%, or about the same as Kihei Clark. But Clark is sixth on the team in FGA, while Gibbs is first on Notre Dame. Gibbs’ numbers were better the last two years, with TS% of 56.7% last year and 51.2% the year before. Those Notre Dame teams had more talent, so Gibbs had more space. He took fewer than half his shots from downtown in past years, and also made 40% of his treys last year.

After Gibbs and Mooney, the next two options at D.J. Harvey and freshman Prentice Hubb. Each of them have FG% under 40%, and Hubb’s TS% is just 41.8%, which is just bad. Harvey’s is 51.1%, which isn’t great. Hubb has been a bit better in ACC play, which may be a sign that he simply wasn’t ready earlier in the season. A bit better, though, is still not very good.

All of that is a long way of saying the Irish can’t shoot. As a team, they are 280th in the nation in three point shooting. However, they are 53rd in the nation in 3FGA, as a percentage of overall FGA. That’s not a good combination. They are, however, and outstanding FT shooting team (38th in the nation). That is keeping their offense afloat.

Defensively, the return of Juwon Dunham changes things. With no real big man other than Mooney, they were forced to go small. Mamadi Diakite scored 10 points in just 21 minutes, and was often guarded by 200 pound Nate Laszewski.

This is just too easy. Laszewski tries to front Diakite, but the Virginia big man is too strong. That’s also a nice finish over Mooney, a decent weakside shot blocker.

The Irish mixed some zone defense in with some man defense. It didn’t help. Virginia scored over 1.3 points per possession. Not going to win giving up that kind of output.

This, again, is just too easy. The play begins with the Irish in a simple 2-3 zone (not shown in the above clip). But by the time Clark is shooting, it looks more like a 2-2-1 and the wing is almost unguarded. Generally, in a zone, the wing defender on the baseline would pop out to Clark, especially with Braxton Key setting a pick on Hubb.

This is probably what happens when a man defense team plays zone. Or, perhaps the Irish were OK with Clark taking that shot. Yes, Clark has his shortcomings (no pun intended), but he’s 36% from downtown. Can’t give him that open a look.

This is another look at their zone. Once again, the wing defender seems to not know where he should go. He’s caught in no man’s land, and the Irish give up a dunk to Ebuka Izundu.

I didn’t see as much zone in the Irish’s last game, against Georgia Tech. That may be Dunham’s return easing some of the depth issues. It may also have been a matchups thing.

The Irish do have their strengths. They don’t turn the ball over. Not a big deal against a Virginia team that does not rely on turnovers. The Irish don’t foul much. Again, not a big deal as Virginia is not a team that gets to the line a lot.

The Irish can’t shoot, they don’t defend the three point shot very well (especially in that zone) and other than Mooney, they just don’t have any weapons that can hurt the Pack Line.

Things will get better for Mike Brey and company as some of the youngsters get more experience. But right now, this young team simply can’t matchup against a strong, veteran team like Virginia. The 27 point road win for the Hoos showed that pretty well.