• Game 25: No. 13 Louisville (19-5, 8-3) @ Notre Dame (17-7, 8-4)
• Date: Feb. 13, 2016
• Place: Purcell Pavilion; Notre Dame, Ind.
• Time: 4:00 ET
• TV: ESPN
• Opponent nickname: Cardinals
• Head coach: Rick Pitino (31st year overall -- 741-259: 389-131 in 15th year @ Louisville; 219-50 in 8 years at Kentucky).
• Location: Louisville, Ky.
• 2014-15 record (27-9, 12-6)
Since announcing they would apply a self-imposed post-season ban, Louisville has hammered Boston College at home and fallen on the road to Duke in a game in which the Cardinals led with less than five minutes remaining before succumbing, 72-65.
When the Irish take on the No. 13 Cardinals today, they won’t have the advantage of playing against a demoralized squad. Louisville is tied with North Carolina, Virginia and Miami atop the ACC with three losses heading into Saturday’s action at Purcell Pavilion.
“I don’t think their post-seasons restrictions come into play,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “We’ve found more of an identity in the last two games and I think we need to be really greedy about that moving forward.”
Like the Irish, the Cardinals can score, averaging 78.4 points per game with a recent 91-point output at Virginia Tech. Since then, however, they’ve managed just 47 points at home against Virginia, 71 points in a victory over North Carolina and the 65 points at Duke.
Where Louisville is lacking offensively, they more than compensate with defense. Opponents are averaging just 60.3 points per game with the Cardinals ranked third in the kenpom.com category of adjusted defensive efficiency, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions (89.7).
“It’s a team that’s hard to score on, and we’re a gifted offensive team. So how do we score against them?” Brey said. “They press you and they fall back into that match-up zone. They’ve got great size. That’s going to be a great challenge for us.”
In Notre Dame’s 71-59 victory at Louisville last season, the Irish shot 53.5 percent from the field. Notre Dame committed 11 turnovers, not a bad number against Louisville, which has forced opponents to cough it up an average of 14.8 times per game this season.
“They pressure you all the way up and down the court for 40 minutes,” said Irish guard Steve Vasturia. “They’re really athletic and play a tough match-up. It will be a challenge for us taking care of the ball and being able to defend. They’ve got really good guards.”
Irish point guard Demetrius Jackson is as focused on what the Irish do as much as the Cardinals’ game plan.
“You’ve really got to take care of the ball,” said Jackson who scored 21 points at Louisville last year with just two turnovers in 37 minutes. “They’ll be pressing us and trying to turn us over.
“It’s important that we move on to the next play. There will be times when we turn the ball over because it’s not a perfect game. It’s about how can we move on to the next play, and if we do get a turnover, get back to get a defensive stop.”
Last year’s formula would work just fine.
“Last year we ran our regular stuff,” Jackson said. “We didn’t over-analyze it. We just ran our regular stuff and attacked it. Just stay within ourselves and attack.”
Brey likes to maintain man-to-man offensive principles against 2-3 zones.
“You’ve got to ball screen it and still drive it,” Brey said. “If you over-analyze what it is, you end up playing with the ball over your head and end up becoming a jump-shooting team. We still want to ball screen it, reverse it, and look to drive the ball.”
IRISH AT THEIR BEST
One could make a legitimate argument that Notre Dame has played its best basketball of the season in the last two games with an 80-76 victory over North Carolina in which the Irish snagged 20 offensive rebounds and an 89-83 triumph at Clemson. It was the Tigers’ first ACC home loss of the season.
“What we have done better the last two games -- and it will be really tested on Saturday -- is when our offense isn’t going well, we’ve been more mature of going back and defending and not being distracted on defense because we’ve missed a shot or not had a successful offensive possession,” Brey said.
“We’re not as good as we need to be in that area, but we’ve made strides there.”
All eight players that saw action against Clemson played well and/or made a solid contribution, including freshman Matt Ryan (8 points on 3-of-5 shooting) and Austin Torres, who snagged an offensive rebound, scored a bucket, and completed a three-point play in his brief action.
Freshman Rex Pflueger continued to play fearlessly with six points (4-of-4 from the free-throw line) and quality team defense. V.J. Beachem set a tone from the outset against the Tigers by nailing a pair of three-pointers within the first two minutes of the game. All five starters scored in double figures.
“I’ve liked our toughness the last two games,” Brey said. “We’ve shown improved mental and physical toughness, and I expect that Saturday. It’s really about us and what we have going right now and what we’ve discovered about ourselves the last two games.”
Louisville won 11 of its first 12 games with its only loss coming at Michigan State in early December. In fact, the Cardinals’ five losses have come against some of college basketball’s best. Their other losses have been at the hands of Kentucky, Clemson when the Tigers popped up among the nation’s top 25, Virginia and Duke.
Louisville handed North Carolina its first ACC loss of the season on Feb. 1.
The Cardinals are propelled by a couple of fifth-year transfers – 6-foot-6 Damion Lee (Drexel) and 6-foot-2 Trey Lewis (Cleveland State).
Lee, a long-time friend of former Irish point guard Eric Atkins and a frequent visitor to Notre Dame over the years, paces Louisville in scoring at 16.7 points per game with a sparkling 86.6 percent free-throw percentage (97-of-112). He leads the Cardinals in three-pointers made with 47.
Lewis scores at a 12.3 clip. He’s second on the team behind Lee in three-pointers made (40) while also shooting with great efficiency from the free-throw line (84.8 percent).
The rest of the main contributors are young. Three sophomores and two freshmen come next on the stat sheet now that 6-foot-10 junior Mangok Mathiang has been declared out for the season with a broken foot.
Chinanu Onuaku, a 6-foot-10, 230-pound sophomore, is Louisville’s most consistent presence up front. He’s averaging 9.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game with an average of three offensive caroms per outing. Onuaku converts 62 percent of his field-goal attempts but is a late-game fouling option with a 58.3 percent mark from the stripe. He also leads the team in turnovers.
Quentin Snider, a 6-foot-1 sophomore, is third on the team in three-pointers with 30 while shooting the team’s highest percentage (41.7). Donovan Mitchell, a 6-foot-3 freshman, helps out in the backcourt with 8.1 points per game, although he’s missed nearly three-quarters of his three-point attempts. He scored 17 points in the loss at Duke.
Lending support up front are 6-foot-10 freshman Ray Spalding (5.8 ppg., 4.6 rpg.) and 6-foot-9 sophomore Jaylen Johnson.
In the same number of games as the Irish (24), the Cardinals have snagged 76 more offensive rebounds.
“It’s got to be a total team mentality when you’re playing size like this,” Brey said. “It’s not just Bonzie (Colson) and Zach (Auguste). Our guards have to come down there and help us rebound.”
Pointspread: Notre Dame by 1 ½
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 73, Louisville 72 (OT)