It didn't go so well, however, as a big Cavalier run in the middle of the first half spring-boarded them to a fairly stress-free victory, as they were able to keep an often feisty Irish bunch at arm's length throughout. Every stretch that Notre Dame was able to string together some buckets, Virginia had an answer on their own offensive end, whether it was inside to Anthony Gill (21 points) or a back-breaking Malcolm Brogdon three (24 points).
To their credit, the Irish fought to get back in the game until the final buzzer, led by Demetrius Jackson and his 18 points and 6 assists (with only 1 turnover) and Bonzie Colson with 14 points and a game-high 8 rebounds. But it was too little, too late despite a +1 in the second half to keep the margin respectable.
I have a few thoughts on this team, both from the game last night and for the team moving forward:
Last night's game:
- I'll get to the defense, but number one for me was the three-ball. Notre Dame finished 7 of 22 from behind the arc (32%), that included 4 of 10 from Jackson, 0 of 3 from V.J. Beachem, and 1 of 4 from Matt Ryan (although it was a glorious 25-footer). If they just shot their season average (Virginia is fairly middle-of-the-road in 3pt defense, so not a crazy ask), that's 6 points to cut into that margin. Even more than that, though, it was when a lot of these misses came, especially in a 1 of 7 first half.
When Virginia was making their run, Notre Dame missed 6 3-point attempts, including very open looks from Steve Vasturia, Beachem, and twice from Ryan. They needed these shots to stop the bleeding and keep Virginia's defense spread out. Instead, Virginia packed it in, frustrated drivers and Zach Auguste like crazy, and dared the Irish to keep missing. Notre Dame did just that all first half, and the 12 points halftime deficit was pretty much ballgame. Hit a couple, and they never are able to quite seize that giant momentum swing in the first half, and I think the whole game is a different story.
- Defensively, the team needs a different answer inside. The help is usually lazy, and when it isn't, no one is in position to rebound. I'm not sure this is a huge difference from last season, but man were Gill and Tobey able to exploit it last night. At LEAST clean up the backboards with all that length out there. In general, Colson and Auguste (and Torres, in a pretty ineffective 14 minutes in which he fouled out) absolutely cannot let these guys catch the ball so deep in the post all the time. Dig your heels in, get low, and make those post ups difficult.
- Another reason the three-ball was so important: 24 free throws for Virginia to Notre Dame's 7. The Irish weren't getting any calls at all inside. Gotta cancel that out by trading 3s for 2s every once in a while!
- I really do like that this team kept battling and kept firing away in the second half. They came out with some great offensive sets in the second half, but Virginia just had a dagger every time it looked like they might just get back in it. They were able to get Beachem isolated a couple of times, and he showed a lot more game than just the three ball. I'd like to see more of that. I was also getting frustrated with Jackson not turning down any shots, but, man, he just kept firing away, and I think that says a lot about his resolve. You gotta shoot yourself out of a slump, and by the end of the game, let's hope that's exactly what he did after seeing a few fall.
- Auguste was in the doghouse big time last night, and deservedly so given his effort on the defensive end. But, in my opinion, Brey is not doing him any favors on the offensive end with how they are using him. What happened to all the motion and movement towards the basket from last season? Forcing him to be a back-to-the-basket, 8-feet-out player is a huge disservice to his skill set, and this team needs to get back to some real two-man, pick-and-roll action to better utilize Auguste's considerable offensive gifts. You can whine all you want about how goes into a funk when he starts to struggle on offense, but this team needs that man moving forward, so you gotta get him right.
- Everyone is really down on this team after the last four games, and that's completely understandable. I'm right there, too (OFD censors won't allow me to share my in-game e-mails to the rest of the staff), but it's still a long season, and almost everyone has these ebbs and flows. Last year's team did, too, but they were able to skate by in enough close games to maintain that lofty record. This team still has the talent, and had a three-game stretch (plus 32 minutes against Indiana) right before this downturn that proved that it can be really, really good. Brey has had bigger reclamation projects than this one, that's for sure.
- That said, there isn't a lot of time, and I think these next 6 games will seal their fate. Of those 6, 2 are against Boston College, as well as 1 each against Pitt, Georgia Tech, Duke, and Virginia Tech. 4 are at home (Duke and one of the BC games BC are away). Absolute must win the 3 against BC and VT. Then split against Pitt and GT and lose to Duke, and I think they are still holding serve as a bubble team. Beat both Pitt and GT? Still in the driver's seat for a bid and potentially a very good season. Beat Duke (even if they drop one of those others)? Even better. But a 3-3 (or worse)? NIT-bound.
- I think an 11-7 conference record is the target to be safely in and a likely top 6 team in the conference. That's still very, very doable, especially given the schedule this year, with extra games against BC, GT, and Wake Forest, 3 of the 4 lowest-rated teams in the conference according to KenPom. 20-10, or hopefully at least 21-11 after the conference tournament, should be just fine, especially given that this team had a fairly strong non-conference schedule. That would look similar to Providence, NC State, and Cincinnati last year (all 8 seeds or better) and quite a bit better than many other at-larges.
- Boston College up next (Thursday night at 7pm) should be the best thing for this team. It's time to get back in some sort of rhythm, and the 191st team in the country should be just what they need. But do they have the resolve to turn this thing around quickly enough? Or are they just in too bad of a funk to still expect that they can get back to a level we all expected and started to see a month ago? Let's hope things start looking up for the Irish with a complete 40 minutes Thursday night.