• Game 26: No. 19 Notre Dame (18-7, 9-4) vs. Georgia Tech (14-12, 4-9)
• Date: Feb. 20, 2016
• Place: McCamish Pavilion; Atlanta, Ga.
• Time: 8:00 ET
• TV: ESPN2
• Opponent nickname: Yellow Jackets
• Head coach: Brian Gregory (13th year overall – 240-177: 68-83 in 5th year at Georgia Tech; 172-94 in eight years at Dayton.
• Location: Atlanta, Ga.
• 2014-15 record (12-19, 3-15)
LOGJAM AT THE TOP
Six ACC teams have either three or four conference losses at the top of the heap entering the third-to-last weekend of regular-season play with Notre Dame right in the thick of things.
Miami and North Carolina are 10-3, followed by Virginia 10-4. Notre Dame, Duke and Louisville – the last of which is not eligible for ACC tournament play following its self-imposed ban – all are 9-4 with the Irish holding the tiebreaker against the Blue Devils on the basis of a 95-91 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 16.
The Irish have arguably played their best basketball of the season in the last three games with victories over No. 2 North Carolina and No. 13 Louisville sandwiched around a road win at Clemson slightly more than 48 hours after knocking off the Tar Heels.
“We’ve kind of found a new level of mental and physical toughness, and with that, confidence,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, whose squad hasn’t played in seven days.
“You worry about moving forward because you haven’t played in a while. You want to keep that edge. But I do think it’s a group that has found itself recently and it comes at a great time. You want to keep them confident, hungry, healthy and as fresh as possible physically and mentally.”
Despite being on the road for the next three games, it’s a great opportunity for the Irish to take advantage of some struggling ACC teams. Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Florida State are a combined 11-30 in conference play.
Saturday’s opponent – the Yellow Jackets – has won two of three with both victories coming against the above-mentioned Wake Forest at home and Florida State on the road. It should be noted that of Georgia Tech’s nine conference losses, eight have been by single digits with the only outlier a 14-point loss at Clemson last Saturday.
One of those single-digit losses came at the hands of the Irish in Purcell Pavilion – 72-64 – on Jan. 13. The Irish held a slim 30-27 lead at halftime and never could reach a double-digit advantage in the second half.
The Irish allowed 18 offensive rebounds to Georgia Tech and shot just 38.9 percent from the field. Notre Dame limited the Yellow Jackets to 33.3 percent shooting in a grind-it-out game.
“We’ve had hard games with Georgia Tech,” said Brey, whose squad has won four in a row against the Yellow Jackets – all by single digits. “I expect a really hard one down there.
“After beating (Florida State), they’re going to talk about a run to get back in it, which you can do in this league. All of a sudden, you get one or two good wins in this league, you inch toward .500 and you’re going to be on the bubble.”
“Georgia Tech has a lot to play for, and we certainly do, too.”
STAT SHEET STUFFERS
Notre Dame’s rise in recent weeks – with wins in eight of the last 10 games after starting out 1-2 in conference play – can be attributed to achieving success in some of the bedrock principles of the game.
The Irish sit atop the Pomeroy Adjusted Offensive Efficiency Index with an average of 125.2 points per 100 possessions. That’s a full 4.6 points ahead of Duke (121.6).
Notre Dame also leads the nation in fewest turnovers overall (226) and per game (9.0). The Irish are 10th nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio.
Junior guard Demetrius Jackson – the reigning ACC Player of the Week after stellar performances against Clemson and Louisville (22.0 points per game) – leads the ACC in assists at 5.1 per game.
Irish big men Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson represent the only duo in the ACC to rank among the conference’s top 11 rebounders with Auguste No. 3 (10.1) and Colson No. 11 (7.2).
Each of Notre Dame’s five starters – Jackson, Auguste, Colson, Steve Vasturia and V.J. Beachem – is averaging double-figure scoring.
In 13 ACC games, the Irish are shooting a sparkling 78.6 percent from the free-throw line (202-of-257). Leading the way are Vasturia (.935, 29-of-31), Jackson (.868, 46-of-53), Colson (.854, 41-of-48) and freshman Rex Pflueger (.947, 18-of-19).
Auguste – shooting 63.4 percent from the line – has attempted 71 free throws in ACC play, which is 18 more than the nearest teammate.
GEORGIA TECH PERSONNEL
The Yellow Jackets are a keep-it-close, grind-it-out kind of basketball team with plenty of veteran leadership at the top of their productivity chart.
Georgia Tech’s top four scorers– 6-foot-5 Marcus Georges-Hunt, 6-foot-1 Adam Smith, 6-foot-8, 260-pound Nick Jacobs and 6-foot-8, 269-pound Charles Mitchell -- are seniors.
The Yellow Jackets crash the backboards. Their 353 offensive rebounds is 73 more than Notre Dame’s 280. Mitchell has 101 of Georgia Tech’s offensive rebounds while averaging 10.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Georges-Hunt paces the Yellow Jackets in scoring at 16.5 points per game, including 27 in Wednesday’s 86-80 victory at Florida State and 30 two games earlier versus Wake Forest.
Smith – far and away Georgia Tech’s leader in three-pointers made with 76 – scored 25 points against the Seminoles. Smith is shooting 40.2 percent from three-point range.
For the Irish to win this game, they’ll need to match Georgia Tech on the offensive glass and play quality defense against a team shooting just 44.6 percent from the field.
It’s unrealistic to expect the Yellow Jackets to shoot just 33.3 percent at home, which is the number posted by the Irish defense at Purcell Pavilion more than a month ago. Another 50.9 percent shooting effort on the road – which was what the Irish managed at Clemson 12 days ago – would offset the difference.
Pointspread: Notre Dame by 2 ½
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 73, Georgia Tech 68