Game 21: No. 12 Virginia (15-3, 5-2) @ No. 14 Notre Dame (17-3, 6-1)
-- Date: Jan. 24, 2017
-- Place: Purcell Pavilion; Notre Dame, Ind.
-- Time: 8:00 pm ET
-- TV: ACC Network
-- Opponent Nickname: Cavaliers
-- Conference: ACC
-- Head coach: Tony Bennett (249-108 overall; 180-75 in 8th year at Va.)
-- Location: Charlottesville, Va.
-- 2015-16 record: (29-8, 13-5/t2nd)
-- 2016 Postseason: Elite 8
-- Point spread: Virginia 1½
Winners of the ACC regular season in back-to-back years and tied for second last year, the Cavaliers under head coach Tony Bennett have become an ACC frontrunner and a national power. They entered the 2016-17 season with an 89-19 mark in the three previous seasons combined.
Personnel-wise, this is a much different basketball team than the ones that rode Malcolm Brogdon (18.2 ppg. in 2015-16) and Anthony Gill (13.8 ppg., 6.1 rpg.) in recent seasons.
Make no mistake, the ever-present Virginia defense is alive and well, as is the deliberate offensive approach that creates efficiency and makes long scoring runs against them difficult.
The Cavaliers lead the ACC in conference play in field-goal percentage (.503), three-point percentage (.473), scoring defense (65.0) and turnover margin (+2.67).
Peruse the individual leaders in the ACC and the only category with a Virginia name on it is blocked shots.
After winning 11 of their first 12 – the lone loss to West Virginia in early December – Virginia opened ACC play with a victory at Louisville (61-53), but were then shocked at home by Florida State (60-58) and out-scored 18-6 in overtime of an 88-76 loss at Pittsburgh.
Virginia has fed on the ACC’s bottom half the last two weeks, defeating Wake Forest (79-62) at home, Clemson (77-73) and Boston College (71-54) on the road, and Georgia Tech (62-49) at home.
Surprisingly, Pittsburgh’s only ACC victory of the season so far came against the Cavaliers.
But do not let those numbers fool you. The Irish have not scored more than 66 points as a member of the ACC in four games against Virginia, which is the earmark of the Bennett-led Cavaliers.
Their leading scorer – sharp-shooting three-point specialist London Perrantes – averages just 11.7 points per game. Veteran Marial Shayok (10.0 ppg.) is the only other Virginia player scoring in double figures.
Notre Dame’s three-point defense will be crucial. Virginia averages a modest 14.2 shots per game from beyond the arc in ACC play, but they’ve made 47 of them at a 47.0 percent clip.
Perrantes nailed 48.8 percent of his three-point attempts last year, and he’s 16-of-31 from beyond the arc in seven ACC games this year.
Kyle Guy, a 6-foot-3, 165-pound freshman, has made 25-of-52 three-point attempts (.481) on the season while 6-foot-5 junior Devon Hall has converted 17-of-40 (.425).
Virginia’s big men offer little in the scoring department, although 6-foot-7, 230-pound junior Isaiah Wilkins averages 5.6 rebounds and has 24 blocked shots. Six-foot-nine freshman Mamadi Diakite has 22 blocked shots.
The Cavaliers have converted just 67.9 percent of their free-throw attempts in ACC play.
BREY ON VIRGINIA MATCHUP
“We’ve got the utmost respect for Virginia, given what they’ve done, but they’ve lost some men. Brogdon, Gill and (Mike) Tobey were truly men.
“Our group’s really confident. They knew they hadn’t had much success against Syracuse since we’ve been in the ACC. The older guys wanted to change that, and I think they feel the same way about this one.
“It’s long possessions on both ends against Virginia. (It’s important to be) patient offensively and move them around enough where you can get an opening. You’re not going to get anything quick against their defense.
“But it’s nice that our defense can get stops now and we can get out in transition because not playing against their set defense would be helpful to us. Then your defensive patience is tested. You’re going to be in a stance for 25 seconds every time.
“Like a zone, they jam the lane up. They protect the paint. We had to make some shots over the top of the (Syracuse) zone to be successful, and you have to make some shots over the top of the (Virginia) defense to be successful.”
BENNETT BEATS BREY
Virginia head coach Tony Bennett has owned Mike Brey, dating back to his Washington State days when the Cougars manhandled the Irish, 61-41, in the 2008 NCAA tournament.
Brey is 0-5 versus Bennett with losses by 15 and 21 in 2014, by six at Notre Dame in 2015, and by 11 last year.
In two of the five games against Bennett, Brey’s teams have scored less than 50 points with a high of just 66.
“Utmost respect for that program and what they’ve done,” Brey said. “It’s machine-like in how they’ve done it. (Bennett has) done a great job of keeping that program old with red-shirts, transfers, that type of thing.
“Their culture is predictable and you can see it, and they don’t waver. Utmost respect for their program.”
Asked if he was due for a win against Bennett, Brey smiled and said, “Yeah, hope so, hope so. We’ll see. We’ll give it a shot. It would be nice to get ‘em. Maybe the law of averages will kick in.”
KEEPING BEACHEM HOT
This should be a good matchup for Irish sharpshooter V.J. Beachem, who has struggled with his consistency, but is coming off a career-high 30 points versus Syracuse on 6-of-10 three-point shooting after nailing 4-of-5 from distance the previous game at Florida State.
Beachem also hit 6-of-10 from three-point range at home against Clemson.
“Love to keep that dude going,” Brey smiled. “He’ll get looks because they jam it in.
“One of the things that helped him against Florida State and then all day against Syracuse was he took that first look. Don’t force the drive. If he has just a pretty good look at a three, we want him to rise up and be a shooter first.
“Then the drive stuff comes. Don’t force the drive early. When he plays that way, he’s in a better rhythm.”
POINTS IN THE PAINT
• Notre Dame is 1-9 all-time against the Cavaliers, including the last eight. The last time the Irish defeated Virginia was in Chicago’s Rosemont Horizon on Feb. 22, 1981, when Orlando Woolridge’s shot lifted No. 11 Notre Dame to a 57-56 victory over No. 1-ranked/Ralph Sampson-led Virginia.
• As the only program in the nation with back-to-back Elite Eight appearances, Notre Dame is one win away from matching the best three-year stretch of 74 during the 2010-11, 2011-12, 2012-13 seasons. Notre Dame won 32 games in 2014-15, 24 last season and 17 so far this season.
• With four players averaging at least 14 points per game – Bonzie Colson (15.4), Steve Vasturia (15.0), V.J. Beachem (14.7) and Matt Farrell (14.3) – the Irish are on pace to achieve the same distinction of the 2001-02 team. Ryan Humphrey (18.9), Chris Thomas (15.6), David Graves (14.4) and Matt Carroll (14.1) paced that Irish squad.
• Following his 30-point outburst in Saturday’s home victory over Syracuse, V.J. Beachem needs 13 more points to become Notre Dame’s 60th player to reach 1,000. Steve Vasturia eclipsed the 1,000-point mark against Northwestern in November. Bonzie Colson is next in line with 887 points.
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Notre Dame 68, Virginia 65.