Game 32: No. 3 seed Notre Dame (23-8) vs. No. 6 seed Virginia (22-9)
-- Date: March 9, 2017
-- Place: Barclays Center; Brooklyn, N.Y.
-- Time: 9:30ish pm ET
-- TV: ESPN
-- Nickname: Cavaliers
-- Head coach: Tony Bennett (256-114 overall; 187-81 in 8th year at Va.)
-- Location: Charlottesville, Va.
-- 2015-16 record: 29-8, 13-5 (t2nd in ACC)
-- 2016 Postseason: Elite Eight
-- Point spread: Virginia by 3
NOTRE DAME’S KRYPTONITE
On Feb. 22, 1981, Orlando Woolridge grabbed a loose ball and nailed a short-corner jumper at Allstate Arena in Rosemont (Chicago), Ill. to lift No. 11 Notre Dame to a 57-56 victory over the No. 1-ranked, Ralph Sampson-led Virginia Cavaliers.
Notre Dame and Virginia have squared off 10 times since then, five of which have come in the last four seasons.
The Cavaliers have won them all, including a 71-54 victory at Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion on Jan. 24.
“Is it the curse of beating Ralph?” quipped Irish head coach Mike Brey Wednesday from the John Jay College basketball court, one day before No. 22-ranked/No. 3-seed Notre Dame vs. No. 21-rated/No. 6-seed Virginia.
“Of all the things we’ve accomplished in this league, that’s the one thing we haven’t been able to solve. We’ve solved everything else but the Virginia system.”
The Virginia system – the Tony Bennett system – reached up and bit Brey in the 2008 NCAA tournament in Denver when Bennett was still the head coach of Washington State. Brey’s Irish managed just 41 points in a 20-point loss to the Cougars, which served as a precursor to future struggles against the Cavaliers in the ACC.
Notre Dame has lost five games to Virginia since the Irish joined the ACC in 2013-14 by an average margin of 14 points per game. Notre Dame has lost by 15 at home, 21 on the road, six at home, 11 on the road and 17 at home.
That six-point loss was close – the Irish tied it with four minutes left – before the Cavs went on a 9-0 run to ease their way to yet another victory over Notre Dame.
The main culprit has been Virginia’s defense. Notre Dame has averaged just 55.6 points per game in five tilts. The high-water mark was 66 points at Virginia last year in an 11-point loss.
Virginia’s deliberate offense contributes to the low scores, but it’s on the defensive end where the Cavaliers have presented a puzzle that, for the Irish, has been missing some interlocking pieces.
“Guarding them in their grinding system wears you down,” Brey said. “There are less possessions, so you’ve got to be efficient offensively.
“But we’ve gone back to playing some two bigs, and I want our bigs to screen them like we get screened. Playing two big guys some, no matter who we play moving forward, gets us some second shots. We could use some of those against Virginia.”
Playing effectively against Virginia requires patience, but it also demands that you take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
“We’re not going to shy away from what we do, so if we can get out and run, we’re going to get out and run,” said point guard Matt Farrell.
“Sometimes we’ll slow the tempo down and play the way we want to play. But maybe we need to be more aggressive from the start and get the wheels going right away.”
Brey believes the key – in addition to patience – is playing loose…and making shots.
“We had some great shots, clean looks in the game earlier this year that we didn’t knock down,” said Brey, whose squad shot just 41.7 percent from the field (20-of-48), including 3-of-18 from three-point range.
“You’ve got to make some shots over the top of them because they jam it in so well.”
Patience, generally, is a Notre Dame forte. But as one of the top scoring teams in the country, patience can be in short supply.
“You have to be ready for the pace of the game,” Brey said. “It’s less possessions.
“One of the reasons we didn’t play as well against Virginia in January was because we wanted it so badly. As much as this older nucleus has accomplished, they haven’t beaten Virginia.
“So I have to keep them loose. We can’t be tied up in knots or we’re going to be tight as a drum.”
STEADY IN THE BOAT
There were the disappointing back-to-back losses to Villanova and Purdue in December – games Notre Dame could have won that would have spruced up the resume out of the gate.
Prosperity reigned until the third week of January when a tough loss on the road to Florida State turned into five losses in six games, including consecutive setbacks to Virginia, Georgia Tech, Duke and North Carolina, which dropped the Irish to 6-5 in conference play.
Panic could have set in; Brey is the anti-panic coach. Notre Dame weathered the storm by winning six in a row before falling to Louisville in the regular-season finale. The bounce-back has the Irish sitting in the No. 3 slot of the ACC Tournament.
“We were able to stay steady knowing that we had six league wins in the bank when the losing streak happened,” Brey said. “I knew we were three (wins) away from being in the tournament. I knew what was coming and the schedule would change up in February. The key was not to let them panic.”
Brey knew that not only would Notre Dame’s schedule relent, but the frontrunners in the ACC would have to go through a gauntlet in February while the Irish were playing Wake Forest, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Boston College at home, and Boston College and N.C. State on the road.
And yet for players such as juniors Bonzie Colson and Martin Geben – who only know Elite Eights – there was the temptation to get rattled.
“The junior class has been spoiled,” Brey said. “Martin and Bonzie were like, ‘This has never happened!’
“I was like, ‘Hey, man, this is the real world. Just shut up. We’ll deal with this. No one is jumping off any buildings. Let’s stay the course.’ They had to see from me a steadiness and poise because it’s hard when everything suddenly is going wrong.”
Brey knew he had a mature team during the pre-season, and it showed when the walls began tumbling down.
“It’s set by the personalities of Steve (Vasturia) and V.J. (Beachem),” Brey said. “They’ve helped Bonzie and Matt – who have a lot of fire and we love that fire – from going off the rails. They’re so rock solid.
“Our three freshmen, and granted only one is playing, are unbelievably mature beyond their years. They’ve jumped right in, picked up our system, handled their academics, and there’s been no drama with them, which helps.”
That maturity is a huge reason why Brey knew he had another good team on his hands as far back as the summer.
“My son was at practice this summer, and after about the fifth practice, he goes, ‘So what do you think?’” Brey recalled. “I gave him the old sell-them-short answer, and he said, ‘You know you have something good. I know by your body language.’
“We’ve not had distractions. I haven’t had to deal with anybody on an academic or behavioral issue. For the most part, we don’t have that at our place, but there’s always a little something. Not with this group.
“To lose two NBA level guys and how we were thought of as ‘this is the year they bleed and go the NIT,’ we had a better record this year in a tougher league than we did last year. So I’m very pleased with this group. I’m proud of them.”
SIZING UP VIRGINIA
After going through its own slump with consecutive losses to Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina and Miami, Virginia has won four in a row, including a 10-point home victory over the Tar Heels and back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh -- one to end the regular season (by 25) and another Wednesday night (by 12) at the Barclays Center in quarterfinals action of the ACC Tournament.
Second-team all-ACC guard London Perrantes and all-ACC defensive teamer Isaiah Wilkins lead the Cavaliers.
Perrantes, the only senior in the rotation, averages a modest 12.8 points per game. But he can ignite from three-point range at any time, converting 38.7 percent (63-of-163) from beyond the arc. He scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half Wednesday night against the Panthers.
Wilkins, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound junior, spearheads Tony Bennett’s sticky defense while scoring 7.2 points and grabbing 6.3 rebounds per game with a 55.6 field-goal percentage.
Keep an eye out for 6-foot-3 freshman Kyle Guy, who has started the last three games for Virginia. He scored 19 points on 5-of-7 three-point shooting in his last non-starting role against N.C. State, and tied a career-high with 20 points against Pittsburgh Wednesday. Guy is shooting a ridiculous 51.0 percent from three-point range (50-of-98).
Role players include 6-foot-5 juniors Devon Hall (8.6 ppg., 4.3 rpg.) and Marial Shayock (8.5 ppg.). Darius Thompson, a 6-foot-4 junior, and Ty Jerome, a 6-foot-5 freshman, provide a shooting spark off the bench with a combined 49-of-128 shooting from three-point range (38.2 percent).
PFLUEGER IN BARCLAYS
Sophomore Rex Pflueger, who has started the last four games and five of the last six, returns to the Barclays Center where his tip-in with 1.5 seconds remaining lifted Notre Dame to a 76-75 victory over Stephen F. Austin to send the Irish to the Sweet 16 last year.
“I’m super excited to get back there,” said Pflueger of the Barclays Center. “Something like (that game-winning tip-in) gives me confidence, knowing that I can be in that position and make a play like that on the big stage.”
Pflueger is Notre Dame’s Swiss army knife, providing the Irish with defense first, nearly four rebounds per game since his entry into the starting lineup, and his usual burst of energy.
“I don’t want to be one-dimensional,” Pflueger said. “I want to be the glue guy, a leader, a role player, a little bit of everything. That’s always been my mentality.”
POINTS IN THE PAINT
• Only Notre Dame placed four players on the first-team, second-team or honorable mention all-ACC teams. Bonzie Colson was a first-team selection while Matt Farrell, V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia were honorable mention.
• Notre Dame is the only team to land a top four seed/double bye each of the last three seasons in the ACC Tournament. North Carolina was a No. 5 seed two years ago when the Irish knocked off the Tar Heels for the ACC championship. Duke is a five-seed this year; Virginia is a six-seed.
(Note: Louisville, by virtue of its ineligibility for post-season play, did not participate last year and would have nudged the Irish out of a top four spot.)
• In three games (Colorado, Northwestern and Villanova) in New York/New Jersey this season, Matt Farrell (Point Pleasant Beach, N.J.) has averaged 18.7 points and 6.0 assists per game. He was 10-of-10 from the free-throw line and 6-of-13 from three-point range.
• With tonight’s game against Virginia, Steve Vasturia will tie Matt Carroll and Eric Atkins for third-most games (133) in Irish history. Only Pat Connaughton (139) and Tory Jackson (136) played more.
Prister/O’Malley Prediction: Virginia 63, Notre Dame 58