Ideally, I could just copy and paste my last weekly recap and call it a day. For fear that my bosses will catch on, I’ll keep it as original as possible.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish swept another two ACC games this week, and they both came down to the final minute. Mike Brey relied on the poise of his veteran group in Steve Vasturia and Matt Farrell to secure the two road wins and leave the Irish as the only undefeated team remaining in the ACC. Their strong performance this week also catapulted the Irish from 20th to 15th in the AP poll.
Neither Miami nor Virginia Tech were ranked teams, however any road game in ACC play is a tall task, and both opponents this week can be considered candidates for March Madness this year. The Hurricanes and Hokies both played very different styles of basketball, yet the Irish were able to adapt and fight for positioning in the paint against a physical and tall Miami squad, and shot the lights out in the first half against a Hokies team that is one of the best three point shooting teams in the ACC.
The Irish built a 19 point first half thanks to their hot shooting, but of course that would have been too easy for them to run the Hokies out of their own building. They let up on defense and allowed the Hokies back into the game to set up another thrilling finish, which was capped off by Farrell’s incredible heads-up steal to seal the win. The Irish have been a pleasant surprise on the defensive end this year, but a lackluster effort like they showed for fifteen minutes of Saturday’s game may be a death sentence against other teams in the ACC. Luckily they escaped with a win, and the blown lead can be a learning experience moving forward.
The Irish youngsters are certainly learning on the fly while logging valuable minutes. Rex Pflueger had experience as a freshman when Brey needed some defense last season, and is now adding a strong three point shot to his arsenal. Meanwhile, freshman T.J. Gibbs displayed the strongest game of his young career on Saturday, scoring 13 points on 5-7 shooting. It has to be a good feeling for Brey to be able to expand his bench and give some of his starters a breather to keep them fresh for these close games down the stretch.
Looking ahead to their next matchup, the Irish face one of their toughest tests of the year as they close out their road trip against Florida State, who dropped from ninth to tenth in the AP poll after their road loss at North Carolina. The Seminoles will return home determined to get back in the win column, and with a sense of confidence in a building where they have won 15 straight games. Fortunately for the Irish, they have been on a streak-breaking binge recently, ending Miami’s 21 game home winning streak and Virginia Tech’s 15 game home unbeaten streak. This will certainly be a tougher test than either of those wins, and the Irish will have to be at their best to remain alone atop the toughest conference in college basketball.
Saturday, the Irish will return home to host Syracuse, and we will just have to wait and see which Syracuse squad will show up. The Orange have had a roller coaster affair so far this season. For example, they smoked Boston College at home by a 21 point margin, yet lost by 15 on the road against the same opponent just a few games prior. Syracuse has lost all of their conference road games so far this season, so hopefully for Brey and the Irish, that trend will continue this weekend.