SCOUTING THE IRISH
Notre Dame, once ranked as high as seventh in the nation, has rebounded since a six-game skid that left the Irish at just 12-10, 3-7 in the Big East. Winners of two consecutive games, ND is attempting to get back into the top half of the league and into bubble consideration for the NCAA Tournament. A victory over Louisville might jumpstart the squad, though a merely mundane home win over South Florida didn't show much. That changes now as West Virginia plays host tonight in a significant contest for both schools. The main adversary is Notre Dame forward Luke Harangody, a 6-8, 255-pounder averaging 24.4 points and 12.7 rebounds. The junior is a force inside, and will present problems Villanova couldn't. His height, interior talent, strength and ability to take over a game or play within the system enable head coach Mike Brey to center a game plan upon him or look elsewhere for stretches as needed. West Virginia must put a body on Harangody and attempt to limit his production on both ends.
Fellow forward Zach Hillesland (6-9, 228 lbs.) lacks the sheer bulk of his counterpart, and averages just 5.6 points and 5.5 rebounds. The senior, unlike Harangody, has yet to attempt a three-pointer, and he's not nearly as productive on the boards and at the line as his all-Big East teammate. The Mountaineers should be able to hack him at times, but must be aware of his passing and ball distribution all over the floor. With more than a two-to-one edge in assists versus turnovers, he is among the best in the category at forward. Guard Ryan Ayers, at 6-7, 210 pounds, is the closest thing the Irish have to a swing player. Solid from the floor (45.1 percent) and long range (42.6), Ayers can bang on the defensive glass. He has shot just 16 free throws all year, meaning he isn't likely to drive and draw contact, and his play is mostly outside the paint. He also has another two-to-one ration on assists to turnovers. He has great length, and is a difficult match because he can shoot over foes. Point guard Tory Jackson is, amazingly, the second-best rebounder in terms of average (4.8) on the team. He possesses excellent quickness and utilizes it on both ends. His 135 assists lead the team by far, and he still reaches double figures in points at 11 per game. The junior is a rare find at the slot in that he can score all over the floor, distribute and rebound and has the mindset to play well on both ends.
Shooting guard Kyle McAlarney (6-0, 195 lbs.) plays a team-high 36.7 minutes per outing. He's making 41.9 percent from the field, including 45 percent from behind the arc. His 209 three-point tries are among the tops in the league, and he won't hesitate to let fly from nearly anywhere inside half court. Certainly the Irish's best spot up shooter, McAlarney set the Notre Dame single-season three-point record as a junior. He isn't a great ball-handler, but does play within the sets and was a first team league pick last year as well. Backup guard Jonathan Peoples (6-3, 215 lbs.) plays 13 minutes per game. He doesn't shoot it well outside (26.9 percent) and often shys away from attempts from there because of such. He is usually in the game with McAlarney as well, which keeps him from firing away, but he plays hard and puts forth great effort and ability on defense. Center Luke Zeller, 6-11, 245 pounds, can play along the blocks or get outside. He doesn't man the role like former Mountaineer Kevin Pittsnogle, but his 34.4 percent from long range is very good for a player of his height (though just four for nine), and such could cause WVU issues. He plays 17 minutes per game. Guard/forward Tyrone Nash (6-8, 228 lbs.) is averaging three points and 2.5 boards. He can man several positions, and will be used in stretches.
This is a more difficult on-paper match-up for West Virginia than was Villanova. The Irish are taller, more physical and should better be able to gain offensive rebounds and keep the Mountaineers from getting second chances and putbacks, which aided them in the upset of the then-No. 13 Wildcats. Harangody's physicality and inside ability will be difficult to slow, but there's nobody on the bench with even close to his ability. The Mountaineers must play physically, but merely grabbing at the Indiana native won't work because of his free throw shooting ability. The contact will need to come in shuffling Harangody when he doesn't have the ball, and not allowing him to back in and get great looks close to the rim. Check how WVU is playing Harangody. Has head coach Bob Huggins chosen to front him, daring the Irish to throw the ball over the top and risk a turnover? Or are they backing him with help from other defenders? The primary idea will be ball denial, while still respecting McAlarney, but how they go about it will dictate some of the rest of the defensive set and how the Mountaineers will handle the remainder of the lineup. West Virginia has to defend the whole floor against this lineup, but with it switching on every screen and defending the three well, it has the ability to do just that.
|Wed. Feb. 18
7 p.m. EST
WVU 17-8, 6-6
Notre Dame 14-10, 5-7
Notre Dame 24-8
Big East Network
WVU - 16
Notre Dame - 74
On offense, WVU should be able to get shots off with Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff, and the point play, though not equal, should not be a major win for Notre Dame in terms of pure scoring production. The questions will be how the outside shots fall. ND doesn't force many turnovers, and shouldn't be able to press West Virginia – Villanova, with superior quickness, certainly couldn't. This game should be lower scoring, with both teams looking to operate well in the half court while still taking high-percentage chances in transition. Game location looms larger in this contest than any WVU has played in this season. Simply put, the Mountaineers don't win at the Joyce Center – 10 loses in 11 times. But at the Coliseum, against a hot-but-average Notre Dame team, this is a game the Mountaineers should be favored to win. But it has to show itself capable of playing well against ND for a full 40 minutes or more as needed. In the past, Notre Dame has been lucky as well as good in the series, recording eight wins by five or fewer points. Here's hoping the Irish celebration doesn't kickoff one month early.
WVU: Joe Mazzulla, out (shoulder – will miss rest of season).
Notre Dame: None.
Notre Dame was ranked as high as seventh this season. It has won two games in a row since losing seven consecutive. The Irish are 4-8 away from home, including 1-5 in Big East games.
* * *
West Virginia leads the nation in three-point field goal percentage defense at 26.6. The Mountaineers forced Villanova into 26 turnovers in the last game.
* * *
WVU head coach Bob Huggins tied Hugh Durham for 26th place on the all-time NCAA Division I men's basketball wins list with 633 victories. He is the fourth winningest active coach, and needs four more wins to tie Marv Harshman for 25th place with 637 wins.
* * *
West Virginia is outscoring foes by an average of 21 points at the Coliseum under Huggins. They are 38-0 when outshooting opponents under Huggins.
* * *
Notre Dame has won 13 of the last 14 meetings and four of the last five in Morgantown. Six of the last 11 games have been decided by three of fewer points. WVU is 25-6 in Big East games at the Coliseum in the last four years.
* * *
Informative-but-unrelated: The traditional colors of the Irish, and their patron saint Patrick, were blue and gold, not the green that's now donned to celebrate the March 17 holiday. The flag of the President of Ireland – called the Presidential Standard – shows a gold harp on a blue background, and until the 20th century St. Patrick was traditionally shown wearing blue. The West Virginia community of Ireland, in Lewis County, was named for its first settler, an Irishman. It is the national home of the U.S. Irish Road Bowling team, though there are also offices in Boston. The first American team to compete against the Irish in their sport originated from West Virginia. The Americans lost, but were victorious in the overhand throws competition – likely because of the National Pastime.