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The Big Basketball Preview: Virginia at Notre Dame

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Over the month of January, Virginia Basketball has played five road games and three home games. That they are 5-3 for the month is not that surprising, but the wins and losses may not be what you’d think. Virginia has three road wins during this month, and has a chance for another one on Saturday against Notre Dame.

It has been a rough couple of years for the Irish, who have not played in the NCAA tournament since 2017 (the 2020 team had 20 wins, but was an unlikely NCAA team without a big ACC Tournament run). This year’s team is better than last year’s 11-15 team, and sits third in the ACC standings with a 6-2 record (13-6 overall). But in the latest bracketologies, they are still not an NCAA team.

One of the things I keep highlighting in these previews is the need for Virginia to have an inside presence on offense. A couple of games ago, I mentioned that Virginia’s trio of interior players averaged 18 points per game in losses and 28 points per game in wins. That is still the case, but the breakdown of points has changed some.

Through the Virginia Tech game, Kadin Shedrick averaged 5.9 points per game. Since moving to the bench following that game, he’s up to nine points per game. Caffaro’s numbers have largely remained the same (although the VT game skews his averages), as Gardner’s have dropped a bit. But the improvement from Shedrick has been notable.

You know I was going to show this poster from Shedrick. Shedrick sets a great screen, allowing Beekman to turn the corner. Then Shedrick reads the open lane and dives to the hoop. This is the best finish we’ve seen from him. Maybe he needed the kick in the pants that came from moving to the second unit. Maybe he’s more comfortable getting a feel for the game from the sidelines before coming in. Or maybe he’s just getting stronger and more comfortable. Whatever the reason, the switch of Caffaro and Shedrick has been positive for both of them.

The difference between the interior play in wins and losses is still there. In ACC play, the Virginia trio averages 30 points in wins and 16 in losses. In ACC wins, Virginia is outscoring their opponents by 8 points in the paint. In losses, they are being outscored by 10 points in the paint. In total, the Hoos average 27 points in the paint per game and allow 24.

In case you were wondering, Virginia’s perimeter trio of Clark, Beekman and Franklin have averaged 29 points per game in wins. And 29 points per game in losses. In ACC play, it’s 29 points per game in wins and 32 points per game in losses. To put it bluntly, as Virginia’s interior game goes, so goes the team.

Notre Dame does not have a lot of size. On average, the Irish are outscored in the paint. They average 26 paint points per game, and allow 27. (Both numbers are slightly lower in ACC play.) Their biggest rotation player is 6’10” Nate Laszewski, but he’s more of a perimeter player. Yale graduate transfer Paul Atkinson is 6’9” 230, and the most likely to bang around inside with Virginia’s bigs.

Laszewski is one of the best shooters in the country, making 46% from downtown. Almost 60% of his shots come from behind the arc. He had 20 points on 7/11 shooting (6/7 from downtown) in a win over UNC.

Look how open he is. UNC’s bigs did not want to step out to guard him, and he repeatedly burned them for it. Who guards him for Virginia? Jayden Gardner is more comfortable guarding on the perimeter, and that would leave Caffaro/Shedrick on Atkinson. But Gardner is just 6’6” and Laszewski may be able to shoot over the top.

That is the Irish game plan. They shoot a ton of threes (almost 45% of their shots) and they shoot it very well (37%, which ranks 32nd nationally).

Another great shooter, Dane Goodwin, actually leads the team in scoring at over 15 per game. Goodwin is 30th in the country in three point percentage (over 48%). At 6’6” 200, he can play outside or inside and he is also a 90% free throw shooter. The combination of outside shooting, inside scoring, and making FTs has made Goodwin one of the top offensive players in the country. Armaan Franklin will have to work hard to slow him down.

The second leading scorer for the Irish is freshman Blake Wesley. Wesley is dynamic, both in transition and off the dribble. But, he shoots too many threes and at just 32%. He also leads the team in free throw attempts (and makes), but shoots just 67% on freebies. He is also the best perimeter defender on the team.

As you can see, Wesley is uber-athletic. He gets up and down the floor, and can finish with authority. At 6’5”, he’s got some size on Reece Beekman, but Beekman may actually be stronger and should have success keeping Wesley away from the paint. If that means Wesley is shooting a lot of jumpers, that would be just fine.

The teams that have beaten the Irish have stopped them from outside. In their wins, they shoot over 40%. In their losses, they are under 30%. They also attempt more in their wins (25 per game) than their losses (22). For the Wahoos, the key is keeping the Irish off the three point line. Let them get going from outside, and this could be a long day.

The Wahoos have scored 1.12 points per possession over the past two games. That’s an improvement on their season number (1.07). The offense is coming around, led largely by Beekman’s emergence. But the defense is still lagging behind. If Virginia plays well defensive, keeping the Irish from getting hot from outside, they have a very good chance to win the game. If they can’t run the Irish off the three point line and they allow the Irish offense to get going, then Notre Dame will be a step closer to ending their NCAA tournament drought.

Notre Dame is favored by 3 per DraftKings. Tipoff is at 6:00 p.m. on the ACC Network