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The Big Preview: Virginia Cavaliers host Notre Dame

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

Just a couple of weeks ago, the Virginia Cavaliers kicked off ACC play in South Bend, IN against Notre Dame with a 67-56 win over the Fighting Irish. Since then, they’ve won two more games, with varying levels of success.

The Irish, on the other hand, have lost two more games although they took UNC to the wire in Chapel Hill, falling 66-65. The Irish led with under two minutes remaining but failed to get key stops and missed a golden opportunity to win the game.

Down by one with nine seconds remaining, that’s an awfully good look and you’d like your big man to knock that down to get a big win. That’s been a problem for the Irish. With the exception of junior Nate Laszewski, nobody on the Irish really shoots the ball well.

Laszewski leads the team in scoring at over 17 per game, but he’s fourth on the team in FGA. The three guys above him (Prentice Hubb, Dane Goodwin and Cormac Ryan) are combining to shoot 38% from the field and 32% from downtown. Laszewski is at 65% from the field and almost 58% from downtown.

Virginia fans know all too well how good Laszewski is. He scored 28 last time out, just under half the team’s points, on 8-of-15 shooting. The rest of the team shot 29% from the field and just 1-of-13 (7%) from three. Things were roughly the same in the past two Irish games. Against UNC, Laszewski had 25 on 9-of-14 from the field and against Virginia Tech he had 17 on 3-of-6 from the field (he went to the line 12 times). He shot 60% from the field and 58% from three. The rest of the team shot 39% from the field and 24% from three.

On the other side of the ball, Notre Dame played a lot of zone, and also threw some press at Virginia. The goal of the press, as always, is to speed up the Cavaliers and hopefully force them into some mistakes. It didn’t work in that game, in part because the Hoos regularly have three outstanding passers on the court. Sam Hauser obviously isn’t a PG, but he’s a very good passer because his basketball IQ is high. Add in Kihei Clark and Reece Beekman, two PGs, on the floor together a lot, and Virginia should be able to handle the press.

Note that Beekman did not play many minutes against the Irish, and was not involved in this play. That’s Morsell on the far side of the press break. Morsell has been out the past two games, and his minutes have gone to Beekman. No official word on whether Morsell is eligible for this game, but Beekman figures to get the start and bulk of the minutes next to Clark.

In the half court, it was a lot of zone. Notre Dame really does not have strong individual defenders and Mike Brey obviously hopes the team can be better in the zone. In the first matchup, Virginia’s shots were not really falling (8/26, 30%), which helped the zone. When they played man defenses, Kihei Clark carved it up.

This is what insiders call a “blow-by”. There’s no crossover or head fake or anything. Clark is just too quick. As an aside, the degree of difficulty on this shot is off the charts. That’s left-handed, under-the-rim, and off-the-backboard with just the right amount of spin. Clark’s finishing has improved greatly. A year ago he shot 37% on two-point shots. This year, 58%. That is making a huge difference in Virginia’s offense (currently ranked 34th in efficiency on KenPom). Clark had 19 points on 7-of-12 from the field along with five assists and zero turnovers.

Against the zone, we saw a combination of Sam Hauser and Kihei Clark in the middle most of the time. Hauser’s ability to knock down that open jumper from the FT line makes him an ideal candidate, whereas Clark’s passing opens things up. It will be interesting to see if Reece Beekman gets a chance in the middle. He’s also a great passer, but with more height.

Obviously, it seems like one key is to shut down Laszewski. But Virginia was also beaten inside repeatedly by Juwan Dunham, Notre Dame’s lone true big man. He scored 19 points on 7-of-11 from the field, repeatedly getting inside for dunks and easy buckets. The Hoos kept getting beat on the screen and roll.

That just can’t happen. Prentice Hubb is has the ball there, and he is just not a threat to shoot that. Can’t let the big man roll unimpeded to the hoop. You may be surprised to hear that Kadin Shadrick did not get much more run after that.

Virginia will need to be cleaner defensively, not allowing those easy looks and hopefully remaining better engaged on Laszewski. Even just a slight improvement over last time should be enough to make things easier this time out. Knocking down some outside shots would help, especially when the Irish go zone.