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Preview: Liberty @ Notre Dame

8-3 Irish likely to roll struggling Liberty in final nonconference matchup.

Game 12: Liberty (3-11) @ Notre Dame (8-3)
Date: Dec. 29, 2015
Place: Purcell Pavilion; Notre Dame, Ind.
Time: 5:00 p.m. ET
TV: ESPNU
Opponent Nickname: Flames
Head coach: Ritchie McKay (1st season)
Conference: Big South
Location: Lynchburg, Virginia
2014-15 record: (8-26)

IS THREE ONE TOO MANY?

Inarguably minutes (and a few crucial missed free throws) away from 11-0 start and a Top 10 ranking, head coach Mike Brey’s Irish are instead dented by three losses before the outset of Athletic Coast Conference action.

That means the accepted NCAA Tournament litmus – a 10-8 conference mark – would still saddle the Irish will 11 regular season defeats. Barring a second straight tournament championship, this hypothetical loss total would creep to a dirty dozen, which begs the question:

Has Notre Dame shot itself in the foot prior to the gauntlet (http://www.scout.com/college/notre-dame/story/1626452-the-gauntlet) that is the ACC regular season?

The conference boasted a pair of 10-8 squads last season with just one of the two, North Carolina State, earning an NCAA bid. Miami was left out, that despite a first-round conference tournament victory before being dismissed thereafter by Brey and the Irish.

A two-loss Notre Dame team would have a much stronger resume than that presented by their three-loss reality – and loss No. 3 might thus necessitate an 11-7 conference finish to ensure a sweat-free Selection Sunday.

THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRIO

Though the Irish are likely better than their record it’s nonetheless troubling that each of the squad’s three defeats included A.) A blown lead, and B.) Crucial charity stripe misses at crunch time.

The expected holdover from last year’s run through Tobacco Road and into the Elite 8 was that the squad’s top five returnees -- Demetrius Jackson, Zach Auguste, Steve Vasturia, Bonzie Colson, and V.J. Beachem – would be battle-tested and thus less fazed by standard game pressure.

But to date Auguste (Alabama) and Colson (IU) have both missed back-to-back free throws with the score tied and less than two minutes remaining, Jackson has committed a costly turnover (IU), and Beachem and Vasturia have missed crucial final minute three-point attempts after squandering leads.

It’s not the losses as much as the manner in which the games were lost that portends future problems.

FANNING THE FLAMES

Liberty is led by the sophomore tandem of John Dawson, a six-foot-two-inch guard averaging a team-high 14.7 points per game and Evan Maxwell, scoring 13.7 per outing plus a team-best 6.7 boards from the pivot.

Freshman guard Lovell Cabbill adds 10 points per contest for the struggling Flames offense, one ranked 335th out of 351 Division-1 teams in offensive efficiency.

-- Hot of late for the Irish is Bonzie Colson. The sophomore forward has connected on 21 of his last 29 shots over a three-game span including a career-high 24 points against Indiana on Dec. 19. Colson has collected 33 rebounds and a combined 10 steals/blocked shots over the last four contests.

-- Junior forward V.J. Beachem has made good on 13 of his last 19 field goal attempts including 8 of 12 from long range over the last two games, scoring 34 points in the process. He added five steals and three blocked shots in the two-game span.

-- Senior Zach Auguste made 10 of 12 free throws in an 87-78 win over Youngstown State on Dec. 21. He had connected on just 13 of his 26 previous shots from the charity stripe.

--- Junior Demetrius Jackson has hit 25 of his last 39 shots from the field not counting a poor showing against his home state Hoosiers (4 for 17 in defeat).

-- Jackson’s classmate Steve Vasturia has scuffled of late, missing his last nine three-point field goal attempts and 12 of 16 shots overall. Vasturia though posted a career-high eight assists in his last outing.

-- The defending ACC Tournament champion Irish will take on defending regular season ACC champion Virginia in Charlottesville on January 2 to open conference play.


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