GAME NO. 29: NOTRE DAME (21-7; 10-5) AT GEORGIA TECH (16-12; 7-8)
-- Date: February 26, 2017
-- Place: Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame, Ind.
-- TV: ESPNU, 6:30 pm
-- Opponent Nickname: Yellow Jackets
-- Head coach: Josh Pastner (183-85 overall; 16-12 at Ga. Tech)
-- Location: Atlanta, Ga.
-- 2015-16 record: (21-15; 8-10)
-- 2016 Post-season: NIT Quarterfinals
-- Point spread: Notre Dame is favored by 11.5 points
TO THE WIRE
Tonight’s contest marks the eighth between Georgia Tech and Notre Dame since the latter joined the ACC for the 2013-14 campaign.
Each of the previous seven were decided in the game’s final two minutes or overtimes, including a pair of buzzer-beating layups by the Yellow Jackets in both 2016 and 2017 – the most recent a 62-60 victory over the Irish on January 28 in Atlanta.
“I guess we have created a rivalry as a repeat opponent,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “(Former Georgia Tech head coach) Brian (Gregory) did a heckuva job with them and always gave them a chance to win. Josh (Pastner) has done a magnificent job with this group, changing up completely how they play defensively and offensively. They’re such a different preparation than they were the last couple years of any team in the league.”
Owners of the league’s longest current winning streak at four games, Notre Dame has won four of the seven meetings between the programs since joining the ACC.
OFF THE BOUNCE
Georgia Tech knocked off the favored Irish last month thanks to sixth-man extraordinaire Tadric Jackson. The senior from Tifton, Georgia pumped in 25 points in just 26 minutes, hitting 11 of his 19 attempts from the field.
He’s since hit for double digits in five of Tech’s seven games including a 29-point outburst against Boston College and another 20-spot vs. Syracuse – both recent home victories.
Jackson’s efforts that January afternoon against the Irish were necessary in part because Yellow Jackets leading scorer Josh Okogie was limited to just eight points in 18 minutes while saddled with early foul trouble.
A lock for first-team rookie honors in the ACC, Okogie has hit for double figures in each league matchup with the exception of his outing against the Irish. Therein was a 35-point effort against Florida State and 26 versus ACC top dog North Carolina – both upset wins by the Yellow Jackets in Atlanta.
Rex Pflueger, Steve Vasturia, and perhaps T.J. Gibbs will share defensive assignments in an attempt to control the Rambling Wreck’s potent perimeter tandem.
BIG ON BIGGER
Junior center Ben Lammers poses problems inside for the Irish. Lammers has blocked as many as eight shots (against Virginia Tech), scored 25 points (vs. Clemson), and ripped down 17 rebounds (against Boston College) in league games this season. The San Antonio native scored 15 points with 10 boards in January’s victory over Notre Dame.
With Irish junior center Martinas Geben largely removed from the proceedings – he did not play in last week’s win at North Carolina State and earned just seven aggregate minutes in three games played prior – defense of Lammers falls on the shoulders of ACC Player of the Year candidate Bonzie Colson and senior backup post defender Austin Torres.
While the Yellow Jackets have taken care of business in Atlanta, boasting a 6-2 league mark with wins over North Carolina, Florida State, Notre Dame, and Syracuse, an ugly 1-6 road mark in conference play has Josh Pastner’s crew squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
A 71-69 loss to struggling North Carolina State on Tuesday put the Yellow Jackets in desperation mode as they embark on their third contest in seven days with a fourth on tap Monday against Pittsburgh.
Conversely, Notre Dame, especially its “Big Four” of Bonzie Colson, Steve Vasturia, Matt Farrell, and V.J. Beachem, has enjoyed and benefitted from a well-deserved respite – not playing since the aforementioned February 18 win in Raleigh.
“A lot of rest on (last) Sunday and Monday, scrimmage on Tuesday, Wednesday off. Those four guys, my goal was to really get them refreshed, and I think we achieved that,” said Brey.
“All four guys needed to shut it down a little bit. I’m always cognizant of Steve because we ask so much of him. He was really smart about getting his legs back under him because he was moving much better Tuesday.
EYES ON THE PRIZE
Second in the ACC? A crushing fall to fifth?
Fourth-place and thus a double bye in the ACC Tournament is the minimum remaining goal for Brey’s crew. In the mix with Duke (10-6), Miami (10-6), Louisville (10-5), and Florida State (11-5), Notre Dame owns the easiest remaining schedule among any team in the top half of the conference.
A three-game sweep of the Yellow Jackets, Boston College and (at) Louisville this week would likely place the 10-5 Irish in possession of second-place in the league’s regular seasons standings. Barring an opening game loss in the ACC Tournament thereafter, that’s’ potential No. 3/4 seed territory in the ensuing NCAA Tournament.
“I mentioned to our guys in the locker room after the (N.C.) State game that we got this thing to 10-5, we park it and watch what happens in the league,” said Brey of the team’s eight-day layoff since. “I didn’t think there would be this much upheaval, but it’s great for our league and certainly great for us.
“It’s riveting. I was recruiting (Wednesday) in Boston and a Big Ten coach was sitting next to me. The whole time, he was like, ‘What’s it like in your league? Your league, oh my God, your league!’
“Everybody is watching our league, and quite frankly, the guys in the other power conferences are scared of our league. I’m just glad we’re 10-5 right now.”
A final mark of 12-6 would doubtless secure double bye status.
“As far as the NCAA tournament, we’re in very good shape. But certainly finishing in that top four – I think we’ve done it five of the last seven years – and we’ve done that when the Big East was the best league and now in the ACC. That’s something we’re really proud of and this group of guys have lived it.
“The nucleus of guys that were on that 2015 ACC championship team know the double-bye set the table to win the tournament.”
To that end, the Irish have to subdue a game foe in the Rambling Wreck, first. The projection here is that Notre Dame wins its fifth straight tonight, but per usual between these two, the contest will be in doubt through the final TV timeout.
O’Malley/Prister Prediction: Notre Dame 76 Georgia Tech 69