BLUE BLOODS VS. INTERLOPERS
The Athletic Coast Conference recognizes its tournament champion as league champion rather than the standard practice of honoring the regulars season winner as such.
Thus for Notre Dame, two more wins would give the program its first championship in its 20-season conference history (Big East or ACC) and would serve notice to Tobacco Road that the school from South Bend is a major player in the nation's most storied conference.
For Duke? Try this recent run of ACC championships on for size: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2010, 2011. (Plus nine previous in program history, including six prior to head coach Mike Krzyzewski's arrival in 1980.)
They boast a 31-11 record in the semi-finals round. Notre Dame? 0-6.
However, no current member of the Duke squad has been part of a team to claim the ACC crown. Then again, no human being associated with the Irish program since it began conference play in 1995 has done so, either.
"For us to beat Duke and to beat North Carolina, that makes us look like we belong in this league," said Irish head coach Mike Brey of the team's Tobacco Road impact to date.
A win tonight would solidify that status -- and put the Irish within one victory of a conference crown and potential No. 2 seed on Selection Sunday.
DIFFERENT, BUT SIMILAR?
While the program's historical differences are stark, their method of offensive attack in 2015 is strikingly similar.
Notre Dame plays with one post presence and four versatile guards/swingmen that can dribble, pass, shoot, finish and defend multiple positions.
Since the Irish dismissed Duke 77-73 in South Bend on January 28, the Blue Devils have largely featured the same: ACC Player of the Year Jahlil Okafor inside, plus nearly-interchangeable college basketball athletes around him -- they can shoot, pass, attack, adjust, defend, and finish.
Statistically, both team's offenses top the charts at a national level:
-- Offensive Efficiency: Notre Dame #1 Duke #2
-- Field Goal Percentage: Notre Dame #2 (50.9%), Duke #3 (50.4%)
-- Two-point FG Percentage: Notre Dame #1 (58.6%, Duke #5 (56.3%)
-- Effective FG Percentage (includes and weights 3-point shooting): ND #2 (58.6%), Duke #5 (57.2%)
-- Points-per-possession: ND #1 (1.22), Duke #4 (1.20)
-- Floor Percentage (% of scoring possessions to total possessions): Duke #1 (56.4%), ND #3 (55.3%)
-- True Shooting Percentage (FG+FT+3-Pt): ND #2 (112.4%), Duke #5 (119.5%)
The numbers above represent season totals. At present, however, the rolling Blue Devils (they haven't lost since that afternoon inside the Purcell Pavilion) pass the eye test, offensively and otherwise, when pitted against the Irish.
Okafor's play in the post is the obvious advantage to that end, but over the last two months, his "supporting cast" has proven it can win at a high level with occasional minimal contributions from the pivot.
They've evolved into the hardest team to defend, Player 1 through Player 5, and working in unison, in the nation.
STAR-STUDDED STARTERS BUOYED BY BENCHES
A combined six starters in tonight's matchup earned All-ACC recognition for their regular season efforts, with Okafor and Jerian Grant named unanimous first-team all-ACC, Duke's Quinn Cook (2nd), Tyus Jones (3rd), and Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton (3rd), with Duke's Justise Winslow garnering honorable mention.
(Irish Illustrated's own ACC awards included a first-team finish for Jones and a third-team finish for Winslow, plus the inclusion of underrated Demetrius Jackson among honorable mentions.)
"Leftovers" Zach Auguste and Steve Vasturia, plus Duke's Matt Jones rank among the nation's most effective No. 4/5 starters as well.
Duke's dearth of scholarship players (*eight) hasn't impacted its bench production, as former starter Amile Jefferson, massive center Mason Plumlee, and fourth guard Grayson Allen have all emerged of late, with Jefferson contributing 15 boards over the last three outings and Allen 45 points over that same span.
As for the seven-foot Plumlee? He starred for the Blue Devils last night in a quarterfinals win over North Carolina State, contributing 12 points (on six dunks) with three blocked shots and a steal in 21 minutes off the bench.
(*Save for starter Matt Jones, each of Duke's eight scholarship players are former McDonald's All-Americans, as was dismissed former starter Rasheed Sulaimon. Demetrius Jackson is Notre Dame's lone McDonald's All-American and just the eighth recruited to the program dating back to the honor's inception in 1977.)
For the Irish, Bonzie Colson was on a surreal roll prior to last night's six minutes of action without a field goal attempt, hitting 27 of his last 35 shots from the floor (27 of 35?!), but sixth-man sharpshooter V.J. Beachem's impact has lessened of late. Beachem has attempted one (or zero) field goals in three of the last four games despite earning a combined 35 minutes of playing time in those outings.
Notre Dame needs points, rebounds, and defense from both to stay within double digits in Greensboro Friday night.
Notre Dame has won two of the last three matchups between the programs, and has semi-finals-sized chip on its collective shoulder heading into post-season action. Their best player, Jerian Grant, felt he was snubbed for the league's player of the year award by the freshman Okafor.
If any team can embrace an underdog, let-it-fly and flow mentality, it's Notre Dame tonight.
Duke? They ritualistically sacrificed the Irish 34 days ago in Durham, winning 90 to 60 and it didn't feel that close.
"A matchup against Duke would be a lot of fun," said Grant earlier this week. "The last time we played them we got embarrassed on CBS. We didn't play our best, they had a lot of confidence and talked a lot of trash, so to be able to go back out there would be fun."
From an Irish defensive perspective, look for the following tonight:
-- Pat Connaughton vs. Justise Winslow: Steve Vasturia tried to check the bigger Winslow in Durham and it did not go well. Look for Notre Dame's senior captain to instead draw the initial challenge tonight. Connaughton can keep him off the glass (Winslow had 11 in the last meeting) but the freshman has the edge off the bounce.
-- Demetrius Jackson vs. Tyus Jones: A no-brainer, not to mention wholly necessary. Jackson played well against Jones in South Bend despite a short stretch in which Jones could not be denied in penetration. Jackson is one of the best point-guard defenders in basketball -- Jones might be the best point guard, period.
-- Steve Vasturia vs. Quinn Cook: Cook's ability to play off of Jones this season has made the former Duke point guard the quintessential off-guard in the college game this winter. Vasturia's Notre Dame's best defender of shooting guards, swingmen, and small forwards. If Quinn goes off, the Irish are Cooked -- they'll ask Vasturia to pull them out of the fire.
Duke's top defender, Cook will again guard his good friend Grant on the other end.
-- Jerian Grant vs. Matt Jones: An early-game matchup with Duke's spot-up shooter (Jones murdered Notre Dame with 17 points off the bench at Cameron Indoor Stadium in February -- he became a starter thereafter) will allow Grant, certain to play 40 minutes, slight respite on the defensive end. Look for Grant to switch to one of Duke's key three perimeter players in crunch time.
-- Zach Auguste/Bonzie Colson vs. Jahlil Okafor: If Okafor wins this matchup handily, the Irish will lose by 20. But if Notre Dame's tandem can keep his point total in the high teens while contributing offense of their own, the underdogs have a shot to make up ground elsewhere, balancing the contest.
NOTRE DAME WILL WIN IF...
It embraces the hate.
The Irish face a tournament road game tonight, period. (Incidentally, Notre Dame basketball fans travel about as well as potato salad on a hot day.) Brey's bunch has surprisingly thrived in these environments all season, adopting an underdog's persona, playing hungry, aggressive basketball.
Duke embarrassed Notre Dame in their last meeting, devaluing an Irish win just 10 days prior, a fact not lost on the team's captain.
"To be honest, I think it's something that's going to help motivate us moving into tomorrow," said Connaughton. "We went down there and they killed us. They really made a statement where most people think that the win we had may have been more of a fluke than anything.
"We couldn't be happier to get a rematch against them, and we're going to have to come out and play our best."
If their shots fall at key times, if the Irish perimeter can keep Duke's myriad penetrators in front of them, if Notre Dame's pivot tandem of Auguste and Colson can mitigate Okafor's damage inside -- because if the freshman operates with impunity early, it opens up Duke's three-point arc for the duration -- and if Notre Dame can get points going to the rim, not just 20 feet away from it, the Irish can keep it close and put late-game pressure on the favorites.
Jerian Grant can take it from there.
DUKE WILL WIN IF...
It stays in character.
Duke plays similarly in style to Notre Dame but with better players and one of the best tournament coaches in college basketball history guiding them.
They're likely the nation's second-best team at present, and perhaps the one squad in the country that can crack No. 1, undefeated Kentucky's all-time outstanding defensive operation.
They can certainly crack Notre Dame's.
It won't take a miracle, but it will take Notre Dame's best effort in what has been an outstanding season to date.
• Pointspread: Duke by 6.5
• Irish Illustrated Prediction: Duke 82 Notre Dame 71
• Season record: 22-10 straight up; 13-11 vs. points
• Game MVP: Justise Winslow
• Irish MVP: Demetrius Jackson