• Game 13: Notre Dame (9-3) @ Virginia (11-1)
• Date: Jan. 2, 2016
• Place: John Paul Jones Arena; Charlottesville, Va.
• Time: 5:00 p.m. ET
• TV: ESPN2
• Opponent Nickname: Cavaliers
• Head coach: Tony Bennett (7th year at Virginia, 147-65; 10th overall, 216-98)
• Conference: Atlantic Coast
• Location: Charlottesville, Va.
• 2014-15 record: 30-4 (16-2 in ACC)
Notre Dame begins its third season in the Atlantic Coast Conference at one of the two most challenging places to play – John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va. – where Tony Bennett’s Cavalier squad continues to excel at an elite level.
The Cavaliers (11-1) – with victories at Ohio State, and at home against No. 14 West Virginia, No. 12 Villanova and Cal – are a different team without Justin Anderson (12.2 ppg.) and Darion Atkins (7.6 ppg., 6.0 rpg.), but remain a tough out for any team in the country.
In Notre Dame’s two seasons in the ACC, the Cavaliers have owned the Irish. Two years ago, Virginia forced Notre Dame into 12 turnovers within the first 15 minutes, built a 20-point lead and went on to win, 68-53, in Charlottesville.
Last year, the Irish fell at Purcell Pavilion, 62-56. The Irish were out-scored by nine in the second half, missed their last four shots of the game with a turnover mixed in, and shot just 34 percent after entering the game leading the nation at 54.8 percent.
“It’s the one program in our league that we haven’t figured out yet,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey.
Leading the way for the Cavaliers is 6-foot-5 senior Malcolm Brogdon (16.2 ppg., 4.4 rpg.), who is shooting 82.6 percent from the free-throw line while pacing Virginia from the three-point line with 26 conversions (.413). He was a one-man wrecking crew against the Irish two years ago when he scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds and handed out six assists.
The stabilizing force up front is 6-foot-8, 230-pound senior Anthony Gill (14.8 ppg., 6.3 rpg.), who takes high percentage shots around the tin and converts at a high pace (.585).
Junior guard London Perrantes is a real sparkplug for the Cavaliers, ranking third on the squad in scoring at 11.1 ppg. He’s converting 51.4 percent from the field and 82.4 percent from the line. Perrantes sits behind Brogdon in three-pointers made with 21 on 37 attempts for a dazzling 56.8 percentage.
Rounding out the top five scorers are 6-foot-4 sophomore Darius Thompson (8.2 ppg.) and 7-foot-0 senior Mike Tobey (7.3 ppg., 4.0 rpg.), who is shooting 59.4 percent from the field.
BREY ON VIRGINIA
“They are flowing a little bit more offensively. They’re getting it out and going. They’ve got a couple different guys that can go coast to coast. Everybody talks about their defense, but they’re a gifted offensive group. They’re amazingly efficient. They know who they are. Getting some more buckets in transition makes them even more potent.
“Brogdon, Perrantes and Gill have been through the battles and are proven winners. They can help some of those new faces understand the program and the standards at Virginia. They’ve done a great job.
“It would be a great win for our program to beat Virginia. But they know who they are. They don’t waver. They’ve been the most consistent program in my two years in the league, and I don’t see anything different, even though they did lose some men and they’re working in some new faces.”
Stop Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste and you’ll stop Notre Dame?
It’s not quite as easy as that with three other players – V.J. Beachem, Steve Vasturia and Bonzie Colson -- averaging double-digit points. Colson also is snagging rebounds at a 7.3 pace.
But Brey and the Irish expect teams throughout the ACC to double down on Auguste in the post when he gets the ball – especially Virginia, which does that to all of its opponents – and double-team Jackson off ball screens.
“Zach dealt with it in practice for two days to get ready, and then he dealt with it (against Liberty),” Brey said. “I was really pleased. We need to come after Demetrius in some ball-screening situations and double him (in practice).”
Without Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton to take the pressure off, the focus is on the two most productive players on the 2015-16 squad.
How does Jackson initiate the offense with additional attention? He owns the blueprint from a month ago.
“I would love for him to be like he was at Illinois,” said Brey of Jackson, who scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half on Dec. 2. “It was his show. He was fabulous. He didn’t play a great first half, but he didn’t let it affect how he talked to his teammates at halftime. In the second half, he got rolling and he gave everybody confidence.
“I’ve said that to him at times. ‘Second half at Illinois. Second half at Illinois,’ because his frame of mind was great there. This will be our second true road game. We’ve done it in a tough atmosphere, so you have a little bit to build on.”
GETTING OVER THE HUMP
Notre Dame has wins over Iowa in Orlando, at Illinois and against a competent Stony Brook squad out of America East. The Irish have absorbed tough losses to Monmouth and Alabama in Orlando, as well as a come-from-ahead setback to Indiana in Indianapolis.
Notre Dame is still trying to figure it out, which is why Brey has said all along that it would be a tough road to prosperity in 2015-16.
“That’s my general theme every year, especially when you get into league play,” Brey said. “It’s more just to get them ready to stay together, to handle some tough nights, and to be able to bounce back in league play. We’ve had some tough nights already.
“Leadership has to be good. We’ve got to stay together. We’ve handled league play overall pretty good. But it’s understanding how not to get too high after a big win and not be suicidal after a loss.”
The 2015-16 Irish have some ground to make up before they reach the level that took them to the Elite Eight last season and came within a hair of knocking off No. 1 Kentucky to get to the Final Four.
“It’s a bit of a mystery for this group,” Brey said. “Nothing like a good road win to get you confident. Beating a good team early in league play will make you feel better about yourself. We’re still trying to figure out who we are and getting guys confident in their roles. That’s the mystery of us now.
“As we’re figuring it out, I hope we can win enough to stay in the picture.”
Sophomore Matt Farrell and freshman Matt Ryan appear to be permanent fixtures for the Irish coming off the bench as the Irish enter ACC play. Junior Austin Torres should be good for a couple minutes each half as Notre Dame’s “energy guy.”
Brey is seeking answers elsewhere among candidates such as freshman Rex Pflueger as well as senior Austin Burgett, who at 6-foot-9, 228 pounds is long and athletic enough to make a difference on both ends of the court.
Burgett appeared to be a significant part of Notre Dame’s future plans two years ago, but has fallen out of the rotation since last season.
“I wanted to get Burg in with our key guys,” said Brey of Burgett’s five minutes of action against Liberty earlier this week. “Burg has been in some big games for us. He’s helped us win some big games. His attitude has been unbelievable. His leadership has been unbelievable, even though he’s sitting down there at the end of the bench.
“He’s helping the blue (backup) team be really good every day. I’m watching the blue team be really good the last couple days, and he’s been the best player. I’m going, ‘Get him over here in a white shirt.’”
Burgett could see extended time against Virginia if he can be productive off the bench in the first half.
“He’s on my mind,” said Brey of Burgett.
Pointspread: Virginia by 9 ½
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Virginia 72, Notre Dame 60