Preview: Wake Forest @ No. 25 Notre Dame

Notre Dame is shooting 77.6 percent from the free-throw line in conference play with Steve Vasturia, Bonzie Colson and Demetrius Jackson among league’s top seven.

Game 21: Wake Forest (10-10, 1-7) @ No. 25 Notre Dame (14-6, 5-3)
Date: Jan. 31, 2016
Place: Purcell Pavilion; Notre Dame, Ind.
Time: 1:00 ET
TV: ACCN/ESPN3
Opponent nickname: Demon Deacons
Head coach: Danny Manning (23-29 in 2nd year at Wake Forest; 61-58 overall)
Conference: ACC
Location: Winston-Salem, N.C.
2014-15 record: (13-19, 5-13)

A WAKE OF WOES

Two veterans lead a group of Wake Forest youngsters that haven’t been able to get out of a tailspin since a Jan. 10 victory over North Carolina State.

Wake Forest has lost five in a row, including a devastating 72-71 loss to Virginia Tuesday in which the Demon Deacons let a 10-point lead slip away in the final minute-and-a-half.

The Cavaliers hit four three-pointers in the final minute to escape with a victory – including a Darius Thompson corner buzzer-beater that hit the backboard -- while Wake Forest made just 3-of-8 free throws in the final 40 seconds.

Other than the 77-74 victory over N.C. State, the demoralizing loss to Virginia, and a two-pointer at Virginia Tech, the Demon Deacons have had difficulty keeping up with the ACC competition, losing games at Miami by 14, at North Carolina by 15, versus Syracuse by 28 and to Duke by 16.

During non-conference play, Wake Forest defeated Indiana by four, UCLA by three and LSU by six while losing by 22 to Vanderbilt and eight to Xavier.

This is a capable basketball team that finds itself in a rut, but is catching the No. 25 Irish at less than 100 percent as Demetrius Jackson tries to overcome a right hamstring injury suffered eight days ago.

The veterans are 6-foot-9, 255-pound Devin Thomas, who had 26 points and 11 rebounds in an 88-75 loss at Notre Dame last February. Thomas is a beast in the paint, averaging 16.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Thomas had five straight double-doubles against Louisville, Duke, North Carolina State, Virginia Tech and Syracuse. He has 11 on the season.

The other veteran is 6-foot-3 senior Cody Miller-McIntyre, who missed the first eight games of the season with a fractured foot. He scored 22 points against Virginia Tech a couple of weeks ago, but has made just 5-of-23 field-goal attempts -- including 0-of-7 from three-point range -- in the last four games.

Bryant Crawford, a 6-foot-3 freshman, is second on the team in scoring at 13.2 points per game. He is converting 41.9 percent of his three-point attempts (36-of-86) on a team that really struggles from distance.

Thomas gets help up front from 6-foot-10 sophomore Konstantinos Mitoglou, who averages 11.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Mitchell Wilbekin, a 6-foot-2 sophomore, scores at a 7.7 pace while 6-foot-10 freshman John Collins averages 7.6.

JACKSON OR NO JACKSON?

Initially, Mike Brey was confident that injured point guard Demetrius Jackson would be back for today’s Wake Forest game after sitting out the 81-66 loss at Syracuse Thursday.

But following the loss to the Orange, Brey sounded much less confident that Notre Dame’s leading scorer would be able to make a positive contribution against the Demon Deacons.

“We are a little rudderless at times without Demetrious,” said Brey after the Irish trailed by double digits throughout more than three-quarters of the Syracuse loss to.

“He’s improving, but we may have to keep playing without him for a while.”

In theory, the Irish might be able to do without Jackson against a Wake Forest team that is last in the league in scoring defense, field-goal percentage defense, and turnover margin. Additionally, the Demon Deacons do not shoot it straight, converting less than 67 percent of their free throws while making a paltry 32.3 percent from three-point range.

But Wake Forest is a team that arrives at Purcell Pavilion with the knowledge of how to defeat the Irish. Devin Thomas and Codi Miller-McIntyre have been on the winning side against Notre Dame on couple of occasions, albeit it when Notre Dame was just as rudderless without Jerian Grant during the 2013-14 season – its first in the ACC.

Two seasons ago, Wake Forest defeated Notre Dame in Winston-Salem, 65-58, as the Irish found themselves in the midst of a streak of single-digit road losses, and then had little to offer the Demon Deacons in a first-day ACC tournament exit (an 81-69 loss) in Greensboro.

The Irish showed Thursday that without Jackson, the offense does not flow with its typical efficiency, which then negatively impacts the defensive end of the court.

As of Sunday morning, Jackson is likely considered questionable for the Wake Forest game, although an official word won’t come until game time.

FREE-THROW FRIENDLY

To consistently win close games in conference play, you better bring your A game in several areas, particularly at the free-throw line on the road.

With Zach Auguste missing four-of-six free throws at Syracuse Thursday night, the Irish finished just 10-of-16 for the game (.625), although that’s been the exception over the last two-and-a-half weeks.

Notre Dame enters Sunday’s game with Wake Forest shooting 77.6 percent from the free-throw line in eight ACC games, including several spectacular individual performances.

Steve Vasturia – who is averaging 17.0 points per game in the last four – has converted 20-of-21 free throws (.952) in conference play to pace the ACC. Bonzie Colson is third in the league with 24-of-27 conversions (.889). Demetrius Jackson is seventh at .857 (24-of-28). Freshman Rex Pflueger has made all eight of his ACC free-throw attempts.

• Zach Auguste is the 57th player in Notre Dame history to reach 1,000 points. He enters the Wake Forest game with 1,042 points, which is one point behind No. 52 Bob Devine and two points behind No. 51 Ben Hansbrough, who scored 1,044 points in two seasons with the Irish.

• Coming off a loss to Syracuse, one in a row would be just fine with the Irish. Notre Dame has not lost two games in a row since the 2013-14 season.

The Irish responded to their first five losses last year with victories before bowing out in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament against Kentucky.

This season, Notre Dame beat Iowa after falling to Monmouth, went to Illinois and started a three-game winning streak after losing to Alabama, won two lesser home games after falling to Indiana in Indianapolis, won at Boston College after losing at Virginia, and reeled off four conference victories in a row – including at Duke – after dropping a home tilt with Pittsburgh.

The last time the Irish lost two in a row was a two-point loss at North Carolina to end the 2013-14 regular season, followed by an ACC tournament loss to today’s opponent, Wake Forest.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 9 ½
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 81, Wake Forest 73


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