1.) GRANT VS. GREAT
Prior to Monday night's victory at North Carolina, it had been a relatively easy return to the hardwood for Irish senior Jerian Grant. Entering that contest, won 71-70 by the Irish, Grant had been clearly superior, both in terms of skill set and athletic gifts, to every defender he'd encountered en route to a 14-1 start.
That ended in Chapel Hill, at least in terms of the latter, as Tar Heels swingman J.P. Tokoto and his troops gave Grant a taste of what the next level will be like, athletically. Grant pressed as a result, finishing with eight points, eight assists, and an uncharacteristic 1-8 shooting effort before fouling out with just over two minutes remaining. Notre Dame wouldn't have won without him, but he wasn't clearly the difference as he'd been in games past.
Saturday in South Bend offers the season's greatest defensive challenge, No. 3 Virginia. The Cavaliers boast the nation's No. 2 ranked defense, and host of "men" (to borrow a term from Iris head coach Mike Brey) led by rock-solid Malcom Brogdon, will harass Grant for 40 minutes.
It's elite against elite. Grant vs. great (team defense). Will Grant make it great vs. great in the friendly confines of the Purcell Pavilion?
2.) NO. 1 vs. NO. 2
Notre Dame's offense ranks as the nation's best by a wide margin, its ludicrous 54.8 percent shooting percentage a full two points better than nearest competitor Gonzaga (Ohio State is No. 3, Duke No. 4, for reference). In terms of Irish efficiency, a statistic famously tracked by groundbreaking hoops chronicler kenpom.com, Notre Dame is No. 2, just a shade behind undefeated No, 2 Duke.
One problem: Virginia is by every measure, statistical and otherwise, among the nation's best defensively -- for two years running. (#2 in FG percentage defense; #5 in defensive efficiency.)
"One thing we've done great this year is developed a Notre Dame brand of basketball that is great for our team and something we haven't let be altered based on who we play," said team captain Pat Connaughton. "It starts with our defensive intensity that we've developed, and on offense we just have to play how we know how to play. Virginia is a great team overall, it starts with being a great defensive team. But we've been playing great offense and we've let our defense lead into the offense -- I think that's the most important thing, to get some points off our defense as well."
A healthy mix of shots in transition -- the secondary break in particular -- and both early and late in the shot clock is essential. Make them move, but beat them before they're set as well.
"There's a fine one because I don't want us tight," said Brey of ball movement vs. the stout Cavaliers defense. "We have to kind of go. This nucleus has learned a lot about what to do offensively, how to adjust. When you have clean looks, step up, have fun, and let it rip."
Number of Note: Virginia has held its foe under 50 percent shooting in 38 consecutive conference games.
3.) WAIT, THEIR STRENGTH IS WHAT?
Notre Dame's offense and Virginia's defense is the obvious headline story. But what about the 152-ranked Irish defense (according to defensive efficiency) and the -- gulp -- No. 5 ranked Virginia offense?
(No other team, not even impenetrable Kentucky, boasts a top five ranking in scoring offense and defense.)
"They're really efficient. They do a good job of running their sets," said sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson. "They make you have long defensive possessions that we're going to have to grind out."
Added Connaughton of the Cavaliers, "They're very disciplined. They run their offense. Last year I remember they screened and they screened hard to get people open. They don't get out of character."
Virginia averages 1.15 points per possession, good for seventh-nationally. (The Irish are No. 1 at 1.24). We'll see how far Notre Dame's defense has come since last season when Virginia hit 12 of its first 15 shots in South Bend (12 of 15?!) en route to a 30-12 lead.
"They were a great team last year, they're a great team this year," said Connaughton.
Indeed, Virginia murdered the Irish twice, winning by 15 in South Bend and by 21 (it could have been 31) in Charlottesville, shooting 63 percent for the contest. (SIXTY-THREE PERCENT!?)
"It was like a JV vs. a Varsity. They put it on us twice," said Brey of last year's matchups. "It was the one team in the league we weren't competitive with. As bad as last year was, we had our chances against everyone else. Not these guys."
They'll have another shot Saturday night.
4.) EMBRACE THE PAIN
Notre Dame is used to scoring a lot of points. Even faced with the nation's seventh-ranked defense, North Carolina on Monday, the Irish managed 71 on the road.
If a petition were passed, Brey and Irish fans would sign up for matching that total this weekend.
"I've encompassed it in my phrase of, 'We are now playing hard games. Everything is hard,'" said Brey of the reality that his free-flowing offense will encounter some road blocks. "I told the team, 'Embrace hard games. Let's embrace hard games.'"
"We may not score 80. It's going to be hard. A grind. Are we mentally and physically tough enough to get this one?"
They won't score 80, at least not in regulation. (Then again, they'd likely sign up for overtime as well. The Irish have won eight of their last nine overtime contests.)
A win places the Irish firmly inside the nation's top 10 (perhaps broaching the top 5-6). A loss could still provide a litmus test in a season with 15 more games to grind through before tournament time.