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Irish Hoops Preview: OFD Staff Predictions

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Our preview series culminates with the OFD staff choosing their can't-miss games, discussing some Irish x-factors, giving a mini look-ahead to the ACC, and predicting whether or not Notre Dame will return to the Big Dance.

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The hoops season is nearly upon us, returning next week to wash away the sour taste from last season for Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans everywhere. Let us turn the page to 2014-2015 and never speak of last season ever again.

On paper, the Irish are pretty tough to predict, coming off a below-.500 ACC debut (ok, that's the last time), but returning their best player and one of the best players in the country. The ACC has seen a lot of turnover since last season from top to bottom, so it is anybody's guess how this season will shake out.

But that didn't stop us from trying. The OFD hoops staff is here to bring you answers to some of the key questions for this upcoming season and try to predict whether the Irish are in or out come Selection Sunday. So check out what we have to say and tell us how wrong we'll be in the comments.

What game do you have circled on your calendar for the upcoming season?

4pointshooter - vs. Michigan State in the ACC/B1G Challenge (12/3)

Having this match-up against one of College Basketball's premier programs will be a good indicator of where the team is going into ACC play. I don't expect a win (though Michigan State has a history of getting off to a slow-ish start before getting beastly in March) but I want us to look competitive and be in the game until the last few possessions against one of the best coached teams in the country. If this game is a blow out, then the rest of my predictions will seem way too rosy.

alstein - vs. Providence in the Hall of Fame Tipoff Tournament in Connecticut (11/23)

This one has intrigue for me on two levels. First, though I do not expect Providence to be all that good this season, this is one of the few early non-conference tests for the Irish that will really tell us if Notre Dame can return to the NCAA Tournament or will be closer to last season's debacle. A nice win here, and all of a sudden, a 12-1 non-conference run is well within reason. Second, Providence won the Big East Tournament last season, something that I felt Notre Dame should have done at least once but could never get over that semi-final hump. I'm highly jealous of the Friars, and I'd just feel better if the Irish can pour it on them.

JoeSchu - at North Carolina (1/5)

First true road game (and I'll be there). The UNC fans last year were cordial and appreciative of the Irish taking Duke down a peg. What looked like it was going to be a blow-out got a lot closer as the game wore on, and I think the Irish earned some respect from the Tobacco Road traditionalists. This year, we're bringing a much more athletic squad into the Dean Dome.

PadRah - vs. Duke (1/28)

I have the January 28 matchup at home vs. Duke circled. Last year, the Irish upset the 7th ranked Blue Devils in their first ever ACC game, which proved to be the signature win of a disappointing season. Unlike that game, students will be back from winter break for what will likely be the most anticipated home game since the famous 5-OT game vs. Louisville two seasons ago. If the Irish can pull off another win, it could go a long way to reinvigorating a sense of excitement around ND basketball.

If Notre Dame is to make the NCAA Tournament, what will be the biggest factor for them to get there?

4pointshooter - Finishing games

The Irish lost 11 games (of its 17 total losses) by 7 points or fewer last season. Most of that was due to the lack of a clutch scorer down the stretch. The lone fact that Jerian Grant is back will be a huge boost in similar situations this season and the growth of Demetrius Jackson will be the factor that allows ND to flip the script on this front.

alstein - 3-point offense and defense

The Irish were pretty good shooting from three-point land last season, ranking 5th in the ACC in percentage and 4th in attempts. But remember all those fun to watch offenses in the mid-to-late 2000s? Some of those teams would absolutely light it up from distance and constantly led the Big East in 3pt percentage. If Notre Dame can get at least a little bit closer to that production, their offense will be at a whole different level.

On the defensive end, the Irish ranked dead last in the ACC in 3pt percentage against and were darn close to last in the country. That cannot happen for a tournament team, so with Brey's stated focus on defense this offseason, the full return of Jerian Grant, and the continued development of sophomore trio Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, and V.J. Beachem, this absolutely needs improvement.

JoeSchu - Man-to-man defense and staying healthy

I have to pick two. The first is better man-to-man defense. If our perimeter guys can stay in front of their guy, we shouldn't have to over-help. We're also so much more athletic that I'm hoping we can recover to shooters and drop the opponent's offensive efficency and FG% back to reasonable levels.

The second is staying healthy up front. The Irish are big, but they're not big. While we can roll a lot of height out at the 2-3 postition, Auguste is our only imposing physical presence inside. I think Burgett, Connaughton, and possibly Torres can get defensive and rebounding work done inside, but if anyone goes down, we're going to need to rely heavily on freshmen to contribute down low.

PadRah - Finishing games

A huge factor in determining whether the Irish return to the NCAA tournament will be their ability to finish games. The Irish went 1-8 in ACC games on the road last year, but 6 of those 8 losses came by 7 or fewer
points. Despite Eric Atkins’s best efforts, the Irish simply did not have the true crunch-time scorer that they had in Jerian Grant. With Grant’s return this year, the Irish should be able to pull off victories in some of those close games, which would bode well for a return to March Madness.

Where will the Irish finish in the ACC?

4pointshooter - 5th

I think Duke and Louisville are the clear cut top teams in the conference but the next group of Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina, Pittsburgh, Florida State, NC State, Miami and Notre Dame could end up literally in any combination. I think Virginia has a stable program that's returning some key guys and Syracuse always does well in the regular season, so I'm going to say 5th for now because I believe in the veteran skill and leadership of Grant and Connaughton and Brey's general in-season coaching ability. But I really wouldn't be surprised by 3rd or even 8th.

alstein - 7th

Duke, Louisville, North Carolina, and then chaos. Syracuse lost a ton but generally reload. Virginia lost too much, and I have them as the surprise team to miss the tournament, as I'm not sure I see the program-wide depth there at this point. I'll take Miami for a "how'd they do that?" 4th place team, followed by Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Notre Dame. I think the Irish still need to learn how to win road ACC games, so they will need a few in January before they really get their feet under them in conference play.

JoeSchu - 7th

Mark Duke down for the #1 slot and some combination of Louisville, UNC, and UVa as the upper tier of the league. I'd love to put us in the 5th spot, but I think Syracuse might be better than expected, and Danny Manning might give the Deac's a lift. Until I see what sort defensive mindset this team comes out with, it is hard to be optimistic. I'd love to be proven wrong here.

PadRah - 6th

I like the Irish to finish 6th in the ACC this year. Duke, UNC, Louisville, and Virginia will be very good teams that will likely finish as the the ACC’s top 4 in some order. The Irish fall into a second tier alongside NC State and Syracuse. I think we will edge out ‘Cuse to end up in 6th, a marked improvement from 13th last year.

Does Notre Dame make the NCAA Tournament and, if so, what seed will they get?

4pointshooter - Yes, 7 seed

Yes, they'll make the tournament as somewhere between a 6-8 seed. I would say that they'll get my hopes up and disappoint by losing during the first weekend but that would make me sound like a broken record. I've accepted that Mike Brey's calling is that of a B+ regular season coach. That's fine.

alstein - Yes, 11 seed

Notre Dame has never been a double-digit seed under Mike Brey. They play best as underdogs, so just once I'd like to see it. Can't you see it now? Irish head coach Mike Brey, always embattled come March, barely squeaks into the NCAA Tournament, only to rip off 3 straight wins out of nowhere to earn a shocking bid in the Elite 8. Maybe a terrible seed is just what Notre Dame needs to get out of their March rut. Who's with me? Hello? Anyone?

JoeSchu - No

I don't think the league is going to be able to get 7 or 8 in. Other than MSU, the Irish don't have the nonconference SoS to make a great bubble case, and I could certainly see them in a "first four" or "next four out" situation. Funny enough, I could see them winning the NIT as Jerian Grant goes into full-blown eff-you mode and watches his NBA stock grow. As I can attest from 1992, watching your team succeed in the NIT is a very strange feeling and will create some restlessness in the fan base.

PadRah - Yes, 8 seed

I think the Irish will perform similarly to a Big East-era Mike Brey team, rather than the struggling squad we saw last year. I like this year’s team to take care of a relatively harmless out-of-conference schedule and hang around the lower portion of the top 25 heading into conference play. The Irish will hold their own in their sophomore ACC season, and secure an 8-seed for the NCAA tournament.

So there you have it. Direct all your vitriol to JoeSchu on Selection Sunday, and make sure to stop back at OFD to celebrate, vent, and otherwise give your thoughts throughout the season. We're excited to do our best to bring you great coverage all season long.