Irish take on No. 1 Villanova; begin ACC action over break
Manuel De Jesus | Thursday, December 8, 2016
Just moments after walking off the court following its 87-72 win over Fort Wayne on Tuesday night, No. 23 Notre Dame had its matchup against No. 1 Villanova on its mind.
“We got our hands full,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said. “It’s a great opportunity for us. They’re really good. Mentally and physically tough, but we’re pretty good too. It’s two similar programs, and Jay’s [Wright] a good friend back from the Hofstra and Delaware days and the old Big East days. … It’s kind of an NCAA tournament feel. I’ve heard they’ve sold a lot of tickets, so we’re excited. Our guys were talking about it two minutes after the game, so they’re really excited.”
The Irish (9-0) travel to Newark, New Jersey, to face the defending national champions at the Prudential Center on Saturday. Notre Dame is having its best start to a season since the 1973-74 campaign, when the team started 12-0, but senior forward V.J. Beachem said he is convinced that this start is just scratching the surface of what they can accomplish against the Wildcats (9-0).
“I think we can honestly hit another level,” Beachem said. “Personally, myself, I haven’t been shooting the ball well really all season, so I think I have a whole other gear left in me, and I think we all have another gear in us as far as how we’re defending and moving the ball.”
If the Irish can truly hit another level of offensive efficiency, they’ll undoubtedly be among the nation’s best given how high they rank across multiple statistical measures. The Irish are 13th in assists per game (19.0), 16th in 3-point percentage (41.3 percent), first in free-throw percentage (85.9 percent), first in assist-turnover rate (2.34) and 10th in scoring offense (88.9 points per game).
Brey praised the team Tuesday on how well it can space the floor, move the ball efficiently and find good looks from beyond the arc. However, he said he recognizes that against a team like Villanova, the Irish have to become more aware of knowing when driving to the basket is the better option.
“The 3-point line is a weapon for us — I don’t want to go talking percentages — just take what the [defense] gives us, but always be mindful when we have a driving opportunity to take it after some movement. We’ve probably have talked about that a little bit more. Even V.J putting it down and getting a hand-check or two.”
The Wildcats were 15th in the country last season in points allowed, giving up just over 63 points per game. They are on pace to match that effort this season, allowing just 62.6 points per game. The most difficult challenge for Notre Dame will be getting through Villanova’s 3-point defense that allows just 28.1 percent from beyond the arc.
“They really guard, and Nova has never changed that way,” Brey said. “We’re going to have to work harder on the offensive end, and I think a big challenge for us will be if we have an empty offensive possession, can we be mentally tough enough to go back and guard? That’s a thing we really have to talk about over the next couple of days.”
Beachem echoed that concern in emphasizing the need to remain consistent throughout the game. Against Fort Wayne, the Irish held the Mastodons to just 23 points in the first half but then allowed 49 in the second half.
“I think we just got to be sharper for our 40 minutes,” Beachem said. “We weren’t really that sharp in the second half [Tuesday], so being sharp for 40 minutes will put us in a great position to be in that game.”
Brey acknowledged the underdog status the Irish will carry heading into Saturday, but said that Notre Dame has never been shy of playing under the lights against big time programs.
“I think we were thought of as more of an NIT team, and we still certainly have a lot to earn before we’re smiling on March Madness. So that was a nice motivator for them,” Brey said. “They heard that ‘With four NBA guys gone, what do they have really left?’ I always felt that we had a good nucleus coming back that knew how to win, and they certainly have played on big stages — our nucleus — and have delivered on big stages, like Saturday afternoon, so they’ll be really ready.”
Following Saturday’s matchup, the Irish will take a week off and then return to the court on Dec. 17 to take on No. 18 Purdue at the Crossroads Classic in Indianapolis. The Irish then compete against Colgate and St. Peter’s at home before starting conference play.
Notre Dame kicks off its ACC slate against Pittsburgh on New Year’s Eve on the road. The Irish then face off against No. 11 Louisville and Clemson at home before embarking on a road trip that includes traveling to Miami, Virginia Tech and Florida State.
With the biggest game of the season in front of them, the Irish are confident in their chances of taking down the defending national champions.
“We’ve got a huge challenge in front of us Saturday, but we’ve been in games like this before.” Beachem said. “We’re really excited about it. We know how great of a team they are.”
Notre Dame tips off against Villanova on Saturday at noon at the Prudential Center in Newark.