Preview: No. 3 Virginia @ No. 13 ND

On paper, there aren’t many flaws in the Cavaliers’ game, although the Irish have a much deeper corps of three-point shooters beyond Virginia’s Justin Anderson (56.7 percent). Plus, the Irish have won six in a row at home -- and 14 of their last 16 -- versus top 25 teams, including last year’s victory over No. 7 Duke.

• Game 17: No. 13/12 Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0) @ No. 3/3 Virginia (14-0, 2-0)
• Date: Jan. 10, 2015
• Place: Purcell Pavilion; Notre Dame, Ind.
• Time: 6:00 p.m. ET
• TV: ESPN2
• Location: Charlottesville, Va.
• Conference: Atlantic Coast Conference
• Nickname: Cavaliers
• 2013-14 record: 30-7 (16-2/1st in ACC)


Virginia Head Coach
Tony Bennett (6th year at Virginia) – Career record: 189-93 in nine years overall (69-33 in three seasons at Washington State; 120-60 in 6th year at Virginia).

Bennett, 45, began his coaching career at Wisconsin as an assistant under his father, Dick. He joined the staff of current Badger head coach Bo Ryan after Ryan took over upon the elder Bennett’s retirement. When Dick came out of retirement to coach Washington State, Tony joined him in Pullman, where he was pegged as his father’s successor to the head-coaching job.

Bennett won 26 games in each of his first two seasons at Washington State, including a 61-41 victory over Notre Dame in the 2008 NCAA tournament when the Cougars reached the Sweet 16.

After one more season at Washington State, Bennett landed at Virginia. The Cavaliers struggled his first two seasons in Charlottesville (31-31), but he then led the Cavs to 22- and 23-victory seasons and an NCAA tournament appearance. The big breakthrough came last season with ACC and ACC tournament championships and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Cavaliers made it to the Sweet 16 where they fell to Michigan State by two.

Virginia Scouting Report
The Cavaliers have held 11 of 14 opponents under 60 points, including an astonishing five under 50. Harvard, a quality foe out of the Ivy League, managed just 27 points on 8-of-50 shooting.

Opponents are shooting just 33.7 percent from the field against the Cavaliers and scoring at a 50.6-point pace. Virginia holds a 12.7 rebounding margin over its opponents and converts 74.1 percent of its free throws. Each of those numbers paces the ACC.

Balance is one of several keys to Virginia’s success. Nine players log at least 11 minutes per game with a 10th just under 10 minutes of action.

Last year’s ACC Sixth Man of the Year – 6-foot-6, 227-pound Justin Anderson – is vying for more significant awards as a junior. He’s averaging a team-leading 15.1 points per game while snagging rebounds at a 4.9-per-game pace. Anderson is shooting a red-hot 56.7 percent from three-point range (34-of-60).

The team’s top returning scorer – 6-foot-5, 217-pound junior Malcolm Brogdon – continues his steadying, multi-faceted role, averaging 13.0 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists while converting free throws at a 82.5 percent clip (47-of-57).

Leading the way up front are two more juniors – 6-foot-8, 230-pound Anthony Gill and 6-foot-11, 253-pound Mike Tobey – who played integral roles in last year’s success as well. Gill is scoring at a 12.6 pace while leading the team in rebounds at 7.1. He is shooting 58.3 percent from the field. Tobey scores and rebounds at a 9.0 and 6.8 clip respectively while converting 55.1 percent of his field-goal attempts.

The third big man of note is 6-foot-8, 234-pound senior Darion Atkins, who averages 6.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game while logging less than 20 minutes of action per outing.

Gill, Tobey and Atkins have offset the key loss of Akil Mitchell (6.8 ppg., 7.0 rpg.), who also was a stabilizing force on the defensive end. Gill, Tobey and Atkins have combined for 104 offensive rebounds.

Brey on Virginia
“They’re in a great rhythm of experienced players. These last two years, they have veteran guys playing their defense. One thing that’s underrated in college basketball is playing together on defense. (People will say), ‘Hey, they really play together well. They share the ball and flow offensively.’

“Playing together on defense is a result of experience, and this nucleus has played together on defense. They really know how to recover for each other and help each other. They believe in how they play. It’s won them a championship.”

Brey on Bennett’s system, 3-0 head-to-head mark
“That team (Washington State, which defeated Brey and the Irish, 61-41, seven seasons ago in the NCAA tournament) played just like these Virginia teams play. They’ve got an older, experienced team. They physically ground you up on offense with the tempo they want. They dictate the tempo and they jam it in defensively.

“We had no answers for that night, either. This system has really given us trouble between Washington State and the two games with Virginia.”

Virginia-Notre Dame Preview
Theoretically, every basketball team has a weakness, but you have to dig a little deeper to find flaws with No. 3-ranked Virginia, which is as fundamentally sound as any team in the country.

They’re outstanding on defense, they rebound with the best of them, they’re efficient offensively, and they make free throws at a high rate. One could point to the fact the Cavaliers only average 71.2 points per game, but that’s a function of their pace as well as their prowess on the defensive end. Their scoring average per possession is always among the nation’s best, as is Notre Dame’s this year.

This is a delicious match-up between Notre Dame’s No. 3 scoring offense and Virginia’s stingy defensive efforts, which are fueled by a more deliberate approach on the offensive end.

If there is a flaw in the Cavs’ game, at least in this match-up against Notre Dame, one could point to statistics that say the Irish have more offensive firepower -- particularly from three-point range -- and have more explosive scoring capabilities. While Justin Anderson is tearing it up with a 56.7 three-point shooting percentage, the rest of the Cavaliers have converted just 30.9 percent. And yet most opponents love shooting at Purcell Pavilion, so such numbers often are mitigated.

This is a great match-up/test for the Irish coming off an upset victory at North Carolina, where Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams can’t seem to maximize his talent. That’s not the case at all with Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers, who epitomize team chemistry. The sum is always greater than its parts with this team, and oh, by the way, 13 of the top 14 scorers on the squad have college eligibility beyond the 2014-15 season, so get used to it.

Could it be too much too soon for the Irish, particularly for a squad that has been murdered on the backboards by Michigan State, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, and still won? Possibly as Virginia’s two-point favored status at Notre Dame could indicate.

By the same token, the Cavaliers probably aren’t going to win them all this year, and if a loss on the road is going to occur, this certainly looks like a prime time for undefeated Virginia to fall. This is the kind of game where Notre Dame would like to take advantage of its athleticism and pick up the pace at times, so as to avoid playing against Virginia’s half-court pace – on both ends of the floor.

It’s No. 13 Notre Dame and its explosive offense against No. 3 Virginia’s balance unit and vice-like defensive effort. Ironically, it ultimately may come down to how well the Irish play on the defensive end, which is vastly improved this year.

This has the makings of another Purcell Pavilion classic.

• Pointspread: Virginia by 2
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Notre Dame 69, Virginia 66
• Season record: 12-4 straight up; 3-5 vs. points


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