Irish aim to continue historic start
Zach Klonsinski | Wednesday, January 21, 2015
No. 8 Notre Dame looks to build on its best start since 1978-1979 tonight when it takes on Virginia Tech in an ACC clash at 7 p.m. in Blacksburg, Virginia.
A win would give the Irish (17-2, 5-1 ACC) their best 20-game start in more than 40 years, dating back to the 1973-1974 squad that opened with a 19-1 record. A win would also give Notre Dame its first ever 3-0 start in conference road games.
It has been a huge turnaround from last year for the Irish, who were floundering in their first season of ACC play through 20 games. The team was 11-9 overall but only 2-5 in conference play.
However, one of those two wins came against the Hokies (8-9, 0-4), a 70-63 victory at Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 19, 2014. The other was a 79-77 upset of No. 7 Duke at home Jan. 4, 2014.
“We’ve made big steps from last year, but we have a lot more improvements to make, and we can get so much better,” sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson said after Notre Dame’s 75-70 win over Miami on Saturday. “We’re going to keep working hard on the fundamentals and prepare for Virginia Tech.”
The emergence of Jackson at the point for Notre Dame has been one of the keys to its success this year. The sophomore averages 13.6 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game while his 39 steals on the defensive end are best in the ACC.
Notre Dame has also recently discovered two new weapons off its bench in freshman forward Bonzie Colson and sophomore forward V.J. Beachem. With junior forward Zach Auguste sitting out Jan. 14 at Georgia Tech, the undersized Colson stepped in to give the Irish 10 points and four rebounds in 22 minutes of play while also energizing the team by playing with a bloody nose.
“I love [Colson],” Irish coach Mike Brey said after the Miami win. “He’s still trying to get a feel for playing with our guys offensively. He has instincts and he fights. … He is a key guy for us moving forward.”
Beachem, for his part, has held Notre Dame in games at times over the last couple weeks. It began with a 12-point first-half performance Jan. 10 against No. 2 Virginia that prevented the game from being a blow-out early. Beachem also provided boosts with a nine-point performance at North Carolina on Jan. 5, 10 points in the Jan. 14 win at Georgia Tech and 13 points against Miami on Saturday. He leads the team in 3-point shooting, averaging 51.8 percent from beyond the arc.
“I just know that my teammates trust me, Coach Brey trusts me, so I feel like I have more control over my game,” Beachem said of his increased confidence after the Miami game. “If I have an inch to take a jump shot, I know I can take it and knock it down.”
Notre Dame has also gone to a smaller lineup at times over the last few games, sometimes using five guards on the floor at once.
“Your first reaction is, we won’t be able to guard or rebound, but heck, we can’t rebound anyways,” Brey said. “Why don’t we just play small and have some more firepower on the floor? … The smaller lineup really spreads the floor, and we were getting cleaner looks because we were getting drives from [senior guard] Jerian [Grant] and [Jackson] and kicking out to guys for really clean looks.”
The adjustment has worked so far for the Irish, as the team ranks second nationally in field-goal percentage (52.8 percent). Notre Dame also shoots more than 40 percent from beyond the 3-point arc and is tied for 20th in the country averaging 8.8 3-pointers made per game.
Brey said opponents have had to adjust to his team’s style of play with the small lineup.
“I think they started the game differently,” Brey said after Miami. “They started … a smaller guy. Everyone has down shifted to us. They really did in the last 10 minutes. They went back to the big fellow for a little bit, he made a layup, and then he missed one, and they said, ‘The heck with it,’ and got him out. Then it was 10 guards on the floor, driving and kicking and shooting.”
On the other hand, Virginia Tech shoots 46.3 percent from the field and averages 68 points per game to Notre Dame’s 82.
“We know that we have a lot of work left to do,” Beachem said following Miami. “But we are off to a great start in the ACC and just want to keep it going.”
The Irish will look to do just that tonight at 7 p.m. at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Virginia.