Game 17: No. 20 Notre Dame (14-2, 3-0) @ Miami (11-3, 1-1)
-- Date: Jan.12, 2017
-- Place: Watsco Center; Coral Gables, Fla.
-- Time: 7:00 pm ET
-- TV: ESPN
-- Opponent Nickname: Hurricanes
-- Conference: ACC
-- Head coach: Jim Larranaga (599-394 overall; 129-60 in 6th year at Miami)
-- Location: Coral Gables, Fla.
-- 2015-16 record: (27-8, 13-5/3rd)
-- 2016 Postseason: Sweet 16 – Defeated Buffalo, Wichita St.; lost to Villanova
-- Point spread: Miami by 3
Last year, for the second time in four, Jim Larranaga led the Hurricanes to a Sweet 16 trip after finishing tied for second in the ACC -- three seasons after winning both the conference regular season and tournament.
Larranaga’s sixth Hurricane squad bears little resemblance to last year’s unit. Gone are five key contributors, including guards Sheldon McClellan and Angel Rodriguez, and seven-footer Tonye Jekiri, a trio that combined to average nearly 37 points per game to go along with Jekiri’s 8.6 rebounds.
Joining veteran guards Ja’Quan Newton and Davon Reed – both of whom averaged double figures a year ago – is a well-respected group of freshmen who were ranked as the No. 3 recruiting class in the ACC by Athlon Sports.
Newton (15.2 ppg.) and Reed (14.0 ppg.) have taken over the reins while one of the nation’s top prep shooting guards, 6-foot-5 five-star Bruce Brown (10.9 ppg., 7.5 rpg.), has lived up to his billing.
Kamari Murphy, a 6-foot-8 senior, has offered productivity (7.4 ppg., 7.6 rpg.) in about 28 minutes per game. While 6-foot-11 five-star Dewan Huell (7.1 pgg., 4.4 rpg.) has been inconsistent – he’s scored just six points with three rebounds in 33 minutes of ACC play -- Australian freshman Dejan Vasiljevic has teamed up with Reed to form a formidable one-two three-point shooting punch. Vasiljevic connected on six three-pointers in the Hurricanes’ most recent loss to Syracuse.
The Irish also will be wary of 6-foot-7 sophomore Anthony Lawrence, Jr. Although just the seventh leading scorer for Miami, Lawrence tossed in 18 points (4-of-4) from three-point range against Notre Dame last year in the Watsco Center.
MIAMI’S NEW LOOK, DELIBERATE PACE
After a 4-0 start, the Hurricanes lost to Iowa State by 17 and Florida by nine before winning seven more in a row, including an 81-63 win at home over N.C. State to open ACC play.
But Miami had few answers at Syracuse on Jan. 4, falling to the Orange, 70-55, as Syracuse converted 57 percent of its field-goal attempts.
It’s been eight days since the Hurricanes last played, although their return to the Watsco Center in Coral Gables – where they’ve won 20 straight -- should provide a comfort zone.
One of those 20 came on Feb. 3 last year when the Hurricanes defeated Notre Dame, 79-70. One month later at Purcell Pavilion, it was even worse as Miami took 12-0 and 21-3 leads before coasting to a 68-50 victory over the Irish.
“They’re different than they were last year,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “They’re younger than they’ve been in a while. They were such men. We had no answer for them last year in two games. They flat-out put it on us.
“Their guards are really playing well. Rebounding is going to be a key. We have to talk and be in the frame of mind we were in before Colorado. We were so afraid that we couldn’t rebound with (the Buffaloes) that our attention to detail on block-outs was good.”
The foundation of Larranaga’s best teams starts with high-level play in the backcourt.
“His success has been based on the guard play, and I still think they have very good guards,” said Brey, pointing to the early-season productivity of Newton and Reed.
The Hurricanes are not zipping up and down the court like one might expect from a Miami team.
“They’re playing the slowest of anybody in the league,” Brey said. “They’re playing slower than even Virginia. They’re methodical in their stuff. They’re grinding, so our defensive possessions will be longer.
“Keeping them off the offensive board is important. Keeping it to one-and-done with a lot of bouncy guys that can get up on the backboard is key for us.”
MIP! MIP! MIP!
There is no national most improved player award, but if there were, junior point guard Matt Farrell would be a leading candidate, due in part to ESPN analyst Jay Bilas’ repeated praise of Farrell’s rapid ascent.
Farrell has earned the plaudits.
Farrell barely played during the ACC portion of the regular-season last year, logging double-digit minutes just twice in 18 games and not playing at all in seven of them, including five in a row. He averaged just 2.6 points and 13.4 minutes per game, but played just 60 minutes – total – in 18 conference games.
But when his opportunities arose – he moved into the starting lineup in the first round of the NCAA tournament against Michigan – he helped lead the Irish to the Elite Eight.
This season, he’s been nothing short of dazzling, averaging 14.0 points and 5.4 assists per game, numbers that don’t do justice to his clutch performances and ability to make those on the court with him better.
“I would agree with that,” said Brey of Farrell’s “candidacy” for MIP. “There are a lot of guys who have taken a step up in their game.
“But from where he was to what he’s doing -- running the show of a team that’s ranked and is in a very good position in the league standings – I think he’s the strongest candidate for most improved.”
POINTS IN THE PAINT
• This is the 21st game between Notre Dame and Miami. Each team has won 10 times.
• Miami head coach Jim Larranaga is shooting for his 600th career victory tonight. He won 27 in two years at American International, 170 in 11 seasons at Bowling Green, 273 in 14 years at George Mason, and another 129 with Miami in his sixth season with the Hurricanes.
• Notre Dame’s 3-0 start in ACC play matches the mark out of the gate in 2014-15 when the Irish opened with wins against Florida State and Georgia Tech at home, and at North Carolina.
Notre Dame, which entered the Big East in 1995-96 and played through the 2012-13 season (18 seasons), never opened 3-0 in conference play. A win over Miami Thursday night would mark the first time the Irish have opened conference play 4-0.
• Steve Vasturia missed all nine of his field-goal attempts, including four three-pointers, in last year’s 68-50 loss at home to Miami. On the flip side, Vasturia ended each of Notre Dame’s first three conference games this season in clutch fashion.
His three-pointer with 2.5 seconds remaining at Pittsburgh lifted the Irish to a 78-77 overtime victory. He scored 10 of Notre Dame’s last 12 points against the Panthers.
Vasturia scored a career-high 24 points against Louisville, including a decisive runner through the lane with 19 seconds remaining in the 77-70 victory.
Last Saturday, Vasturia’s corner jumper with 1:45 left against Clemson gave the Irish a 70-68 lead en route to a 75-70 victory.
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Miami 71, Notre Dame 64