Irish look to crack ACC top four against Louisville
Manuel De Jesus | Friday, February 12, 2016
It’s the middle of February, which means it’s crunch time for teams trying to polish their résumés for the NCAA tournament.
Notre Dame (17-7, 8-4 ACC), who is riding high following two wins in the past week against No. 9 North Carolina and Clemson, will have an opportunity to strengthen its case for a bid to the tournament against No. 13 Louisville on Saturday night at Purcell Pavilion.
The Cardinals (19-5, 8-3 ACC), on the other hand, are no longer playing for a spot in the postseason after banning themselves from any tournaments after the regular season, but that has not stopped Louisville from playing inspired basketball of late. Since the self-imposed ban was announced Feb. 5, Louisville has ousted Boston College by 32 points and lost in a close contest against Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, falling 72-65.
“I think you’re looking at a team that’s hard to score on, and we’re a gifted offensive team,” Brey said. “So, how do we score against them? They’re really gifted. They press you to go back to that matchup zone. They have great size, so I think that’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
The Cardinals rank seventh in the nation in opponent field-goal percentage and sixth in points allowed. Sophomore center Chinanu Onuaku and junior forward Mangok Mathiang average a combined 14.2 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per game. On the offensive end, the Cardinals are led by fifth-year senior transfer guard Damion Lee, who averages 16.7 points per game.
The Irish have the 17th-most efficient offense in the country, and Brey said he believes their recent success is just the beginning of a newfound identity.
“What we have done better, especially in the last two games, is when our offense isn’t going well, we’ve been more mature of going back and defending and not being distracted on defense because we missed a shot or didn’t have a successful offensive possession,” Brey said. “That was an area we needed to grow in. We’re not as good as we need to be, but we’ve made strides there, and that’s the biggest theme for Saturday afternoon.”
Notre Dame started its ACC schedule with a 1-2 record in January and was still developing on both ends of the floor after the departure of Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton last season. Since then, the Irish have gone 7-2, including notable wins over Duke and North Carolina.
“I’m really proud of them, and this group specifically,” Brey said. “I think they’ve really grown a lot, probably since the Pittsburgh loss. I think we’ve really focused, and we’ve practiced well. Our leadership stepped up. I always felt that because we’ve had a nucleus of guys that were part of an ACC championship that you have a lot to work with. They remember the formula. They delivered on big nights, and you were kind of hoping for that to maybe happen a little more consistently.
“As far as a double-bye opening up, and certainly with the Louisville situation, it makes that gettable. Certainly we’ve remembered that the double-bye helped us get to the championship, and we’ve been in double-bye territory before back in the old Big East, which helped us advance to the semifinals many times. That’s something to really shoot for, and we’re in position to get one of those.”
With only six conference games left on the schedule, including Louisville, Notre Dame has little room for error if it wants to lock up one of the top four seeds in the ACC tournament. Last season, the double-bye helped propel the Irish to their first conference title in school history.
Saturday’s pivotal game will be sold out, and Brey said the crowd will benefit the team just as it did last week against the Tar Heels. Connaughton and Grant will also be in attendance to cheer on the Irish during All-Star Weekend in the NBA.
“We found more of an identity in the last two games, and I think we need to be more greedy about that moving forward to see if we can get another big win in our building,” Brey said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere again.”
The Irish and Cardinals are scheduled to tip at 4 p.m. Saturday at Purcell Pavilion.