A tough road lies ahead for Notre Dame in ACC play.
Mike Brey’s Notre Dame squad recently had a nine day layoff and looked quite rusty on Saturday against an 0-14 Coppin State team. They were, however, able to come together and pull out the win.
Our Irish performed pretty much as expected in non-conference play. They finished at 10-3 and No. 53 in KenPom. They were able to land a quality win over Purdue, though the value of that win is shaky as the Boilermakers have failed to meet expectations. The UCLA loss looks worse and worse with each passing week, but for a young team traveling for their first true road game, it was expected. Oklahoma was a missed opportunity and I believe the Radford loss will look less terrible as the season progresses.
The next real test is Tuesday, when ACC league play begins. Big boy basketball. The road to the NCAA tournament is littered with both land mines and opportunities.
The first opportunity is the first game while also being a huge test. The Irish travel to Blacksburg to take on a top 10 Virginia Tech team that can really scorch the nets. The Hokies currently rank fourth in the country at 43.5% from deep and love to get out and run. According to the new NET metric, which will be used to determine tournament births, road wins are far more valuable than home and neutral site victories.
Currently, Kenpom favors Virginia Tech by eleven, 76-65. In fact, Notre Dame is currently only favored in two of its first ten ACC contests. Those two games are contests 2 and 3, against Boston College and Syracuse, both of which will be played at Purcell Pavilion. The Boston College game should be a win, however, predicting a Syracuse game would be an act of futility. One thing is for sure, if the Irish are going to win, they will have to be able to should it well from deep.
Next up is a tilt at Chapel Hill followed by home against NC State. North Carolina is going to be tough to defeat in their house, I am not sure how optimistic I would be there. The NC State game is interesting, and while the Irish aren’t favored (Kenpom), I think this is an opportunity for the good guys. John Mooney and Juwan Durham should be able to absolutely dominate the paint in that contest.
Game 6 is a land mine if I have ever seen one — in Atlanta against a Georgia Tech squad that has trouble scoring, but is one of the best defensive units in the country. This game is very dangerous and would definitely be a bad loss on the resume come tournament time.
Next up are the big boys, hosting Virginia on a Saturday and Duke on a Monday. Talk about a 1-2 combo — yikes! I don’t pretend to be a fortune teller, and who knows how the Irish will be playing at this point, but things need to improve to beat either of these teams.
I differ from KenPom on two the next three games. At Boston College, at Miami and hosting Georgia Tech. These games all take place in February, the freshman will no longer be freshman at this point. If we are able to avoid any further injuries, I like us in all three contests. Boston College is the only crew I would be shaky on, but we should outclass them. Miami is a train wreck and Georgia Tech going on the road wouldn’t scare my 2 year old nephew.
The final seven games are a gauntlet to say the least.
At Virginia is a huge challenge obviously. Hosting Wake Forest is a game that absolutely needs to be won. Right now the Deacons look like the worst team in the conference in my opinion. By the time this game rolls around, Hoard will be looking at the NBA, Danny Manning hot seat rumors will be swirling and some players will be re-thinking their college of choice. They are talented, but are not good on stage. Land mine.
The Irish wrap up the season with: Virginia Tech, at FSU, at Louisville, Clemson, at Pitt. Wins are going to be hard to come by here. Two top 15 teams followed by two of three on the road. There are zero gimme games on the road in the ACC. That game Pitt is no sure thing. Ever heard of Xavier Johnson? You will. If Coach Brey is able to go 2-3 or even 3-2 in these games, the Irish should dance. That would put us in the 8-10 or 9-9 area. Of course, that is coming from an Irish basketball fan who is biased and possibly foolishly optimistic.
Why I am optimistic? Temple Gibbs has played relatively well in the last four games. The junior has found his stroke from deep, connecting on 13 of his last 28 triples and averaging north of 15 points per game.
Another reason I like this team is the lack of quality big men around the ACC. John Mooney is clearly in the upper echelon of pivots in the league, averaging 12.8 points and 9.3 rebounds and leading the league with 6 double doubles.
This team may be finding its stride. After a tough loss to UCLA, the Irish have strung together a modest four game winning streak. Regardless of competition, that is a step forward for a young team, a sign of seeming consistency. While it is not always pretty with this squad, it has been effective the past couple of weeks. That Coppin State game was very hard to watch, but at closing time, Coach Brey also had three true freshman on the court. For that reason, I still think this team gets to the dance.