• Game 18: Virginia Tech (12-6; 4-1) @ Notre Dame (12-5; 3-2)
• Date: Jan. 20, 2016
• Place: Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame, Ind.
• Time: 7:00 p.m. ET
• TV: ESPN3, RSN (Local Comcast 101)
• Opponent Nickname: Hokies
• Head coach: Buzz (23-28 Va. Tech; 172-114 overall)
• Conference: ACC
• Location: Blacksburg, Va.
• 2014-15 record: (11-22; 2-16)
What a difference a week makes.
Left for dead after a home loss to Pittsburgh that dropped their record to 1-2 in league play, Notre Dame rebounded with a two-game sweep last week, first fighting off a game Georgia Tech squad in South Bend, then accomplishing a program first – winning at Duke, a 95-91 thriller on Saturday.
For that matter, what a difference a year makes.
As Virginia Tech readied for its matchup with Notre Dame at the Purcell Pavilion last January 22nd, first-year head coach Buzz Williams’ Hokies were mired at 0-4 in league play, losers of 9 of 17 overall.
Today, Virginia Tech trails only undefeated North Carolina in the ACC standings, 4-1 with close call victories over North Carolina State, Wake Forest, the aforementioned Yellow Jackets, and, most impressive, Virginia under its belt.
Notable because of their surprisingly strong start however is the tenor of many of the Hokies losses -- in four of their six defeats to date they’ve taken a beating by 17-plus points, though on the opposite side of each blowout was a quality foe: Iowa State, West Virginia, and Duke, and St. Joseph’s.
In short, work remains for Virginia Tech to be accepted as part of the league’s top tier, and Notre Dame is staked as a 13-point favorite tonight as a result.
STYLE OR SUBSTANCE?
Pick your preferred method: a properly spread floor or your best players on the floor?
The former includes freshman shooter Matt Ryan replacing one of Notre Dame’s big men. The latter instead includes both Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson – doubtless two of Mike Brey’s three best players behind star guard Demetrius Jackson.
The spread 4-around-1 approach worked for the most part in last week’s win over Georgia Tech, with Auguste the beneficiary because of more room to roam – i.e. crash to the hoop – in pick-and-roll situations. Colson of course did everything but sell popcorn at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday, destroying Duke from inside (mostly) and occasionally out, hitting two momentum-seizing three-point shots.
Notre Dame’s dual approach is certain to challenge foes defensively over the remainder of the season. It’s also going to present a nightly challenge to Brey, because neither method has proven to be clearly the better option to date.
MEET THE (NEW) HOKIES
The Hokies boast a quartet of double figures scorers led by junior transfer Zach LeDay (15.6 points, 8.9 rebounds). The six-foot-seven, 235-pound forward who began his career at South Florida has produced 81 points over his last four outings, an 8-for-13 performance from beyond the arc included therein.
LeDay presents a unique matchup challenge in that he has the frame of a power forward, shoots it from long range, but still finds a way to march to the free throw line with regularity. (He’s knocked down 24 of 29 over the last five outings, notable in that only one Notre Dame player, Zach Auguste, has attempted 29 free throws over any five-game span this season, and 20 of those 29 preceded conference play.)
- Aiding his cause are junior transfer Seth Allen (13.3 ppg., formerly of Maryland) and sophomore guard Justin Bibbs (12.5 ppg., 54.5% from beyond the arc). Freshman swingman Chris Clarke (10.5 ppg., 7.4 boards) has been shelved for the season after foot surgery in December.
- In Clarke’s stead, Virginia Tech relies heavily on a seven-man rotation rounded out by guards Jalen Hudson, Justin Robinson and Devin Wilson plus forwards Kenny Blackshear, Jr., and Shane Henry – the former a six-foot-ten, 240-pound freshman on the rise.
- The Hokies have lived at charity stripe of late, attempting 36 free throws in a win over Georgia Tech, 35 vs. Wake Forest, and 22 apiece against Duke, Virginia, and North Carolina State.
- Virginia Tech ranks second nationally in free throws attempted per field goal attempt. The Hokies have made 39 more free throws than their combined foes have attempted on the season.
Prior to moving to a sixth-man role one week ago, sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson had connected on a remarkable 43 of his last 63 field goal attempts. He misfired on five of seven shots vs. Georgia Tech thereafter but regained his form hitting 12 of 19 in Durham en route to 31 points and national player of the week honors.
- Junior point guard Demetrius Jackson bounced back from a 2 for 11 shooting outing against Georgia Tech to hit 10 of 16 field goals at Duke. Regardless of his marksmanship, Jackson has shined in his overall floor game, corralling a combined 11 boards and 12 assists in the two victories.
Curiously, after connecting on 13 of 20 three-point shots in his first three league games, Jackson has missed on eight of his last nine.
- Jackson’s backcourt mate and fellow captain Steve Vasturia posted several season highs against Duke including points (22), rebounds (6), three-point field goals made (4 of 6), and total field goals attempted (hitting 8 of 16). He’s connected on 34 of 61 field goals over the last seven outings while posting 24 assists vs. just 10 turnovers.
- Though Zach Auguste struggled from the field in Durham (hitting just 3 of 12 semi-contested attempts near the rim), the senior has refocused his efforts on the boards, grabbing 14 against Duke and nine vs. the Yellow Jackets. Auguste hit 10 of 13 vs. Georgia Tech en route to 24 points, his highest-ever ACC scoring total.
Junior forward V.J. Beachem has gone without a three-point bucket in both of the last two wins, that after hitting 5 of 11 combined from long range vs. Pittsburgh and Boston College. He’s failed to hit double digits over the last three outings.
- Freshman guard Rex Pfleuger played more minutes Saturday (23) than in four previous ACC outings combined (22 including a DNP at Virginia). Pfleuger’s floor game was outstanding in Durham, contributing a pair of assists, two blocks, a rebound, a crucial tipped rebound to help seal the contest, and seven points while providing strong defense vs. Duke’s hot-hand, Luke Kennard.
- The aforementioned Ryan missed his only shot attempt vs. the Blue Devils. The freshman had hit for 10, 8, 9, and 7 points in four previous ACC contests, shooting 11 for 23 from the field. Ryan also notched 7 boards in his first career start last vs. vs. Georgia Tech.
O’Malley/Prister Prediction: Notre Dame 84 Virginia Tech 76