While roughly 99.9% of us were focused completely on a Cotton Bowl game that would ultimately mercilessly rip our hearts out yet again, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team improved to 10-3 on Saturday with a narrow, nearly-embarrassing victory over the winless Coppin State Eagles, who rate as one of the worst teams in Division 1 hoops.
They managed to escape, thankfully, and now, with non-conference play complete and the football season officially over, we can all pivot to watching this weird, young, inexperienced team begin its 18-game ACC schedule against the #10 Virginia Tech Hokies in Blacksburg tomorrow afternoon as we all recover from New Year’s Eve/whatever we did to forget the Cotton Bowl.
The Hokies have been great so far this year, but haven’t faced too many obstacles en route to that 11-of-12 start. With that said, Notre Dame doesn’t exactly look like a team poised to challenge them on their home court.
So how does this matchup look heading into New Year’s Day? Let’s dive into the details and embrace basketball season, my friends.
- Notre Dame and Virginia Tech are meeting for the 11th time on Tuesday afternoon and 7th time as ACC opponents. The Irish lead the all-time series 8-2 and 5-1 in ACC play (per Alan Wasielewski, Associate Athletics Communication Director)
- In the last meeting between the two teams, Notre Dame utilized a 45-18 run in the final 15 minutes of the game to erase a 21-point second-half deficit and beat Virginia Tech 71-65 in the second round of the 2018 ACC Tournament. The 21-point rally marked the greatest comeback victory in Notre Dame basketball history (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Notre Dame is 4-0 at Cassell Coliseum and Mike Brey is 9-3 all-time against Buzz Williams. Notre Dame is 4-1 in its ACC conference openers and 3-2 in its first ACC road game of the season (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Through 113 seasons of Notre Dame basketball the Irish have played on New Years Day just three times — and on only two dates. The 1908-09 team played a double header on New Year’s, sweeping the Mobile YMCA in Mobile, Alabama. The Irish also faced Syracuse on New Year’s Day in 2011, falling 70-58 to the 5th-ranked Orange (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Junior forward John Mooney currently stands 3rd in the ACC in rebounding (9.3 per game) and leads the league in double-doubles with 6 in 13 games played (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Junior forward Juwan Durham is currently tied for 5th in the country in blocks per game (3.25) after a 6-block effort vs. Coppin State on Saturday. Furthermore, he’s already 19th on the all-time Notre Dame list for single-season blocks and is 13 away from cracking the top-10, with the entire ACC slate left to be played (per Alan Wasielewski)
Where: Cassell Coliseum — Blacksburg, Virginia
When: Tuesday, January 1st at 1:00 PM ET
How to Watch:
- TV: ESPNU with Kevin Brown and Jordan Cornette
- Live Stream: WatchESPN.com and the ESPN app
- Radio: Notre Dame Basketball Network (also available on the Notre Dame app) - with Jack Nolan and Zach Hillesland
Virginia Tech Hokies (11-1)
The Hokies enter the ACC opener playing some damn good basketball, continuing their recent trend of being a team full of guards that can shoot and score points in bunches.
Some of the pesky names of the past few years are finally gone (Chris Clarke was there for roughly 15 years, I think), but there are still a bunch of names you’ll be familiar with from the past couple years that are leading the Hokies to one of their best starts in a long, long time.
The Hokies worked their way up to the #10 ranking on the back of beating a few decent teams (Purdue, Washington, Ball State?) and then piling it on against a lot of also-rans of NCAA Division 1 hoops. Nevertheless, with a 1-point loss at Penn State being their sole blemish, and with an offense that is 13th in the country in field goal percentage and 2nd in 3-point percentage (44.1% AS A TEAM), the Hokies are looking like a squad that will compete for one of the top 4 seeds in the ACC Tournament.
Sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker is the leading scorer, which comes as no surprise to anyone who watched him contribute last year as a freshman. Now, with a year under his belt, Alexander-Walker is averaging 18.5 points per game to go along with 4.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.5 steals per contest, and he’s shooting an absolutely SIZZLING 47% from deep, having made 22 of his 47 attempts from long range so far this year. At 6’5” he has great size and can score from all over the court, so he should be a tough matchup for the Irish considering Rex Pflueger’s absence.
A name you’ll recognize as a Chris Clarke-esque guy who seems like he’s been there forever is senior point guard Justin Robinson, who is averaging 13.9 points and 5.9 assists per game this year (plus 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 steals) to go along with a 39% three point percentage, which on any other team would be pretty damn good.
To go along with those two in the backcourt, 6’5” senior Ahmed Hill and 6’6” senior Ty Outlaw combine for another 21 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, and both are somehow even better than Alexander-Walker from deep — Hill has made 34 of 70 for 49%, while Outlaw has hit 27 of 51 three pointers to give him a 53% clip from long range. Needless to say, this team can SHOOT.
6’10” junior forward Kerry Blackshear is really the only significant “big man” for Buzz Williams’ squad, averaging 13 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 0.9 blocks per game with his size and athleticism down low. Don’t be fooled into thinking he can’t shoot at all, though — he still shoots threes at a 33% clip, which is pretty solid for a 6’10” guy that will certainly force Juwan Durham, John Mooney, and Nate Laszewski to guard him all over the floor.
A few other role players to watch out for: 6’3” freshman guard Isaiah Wilkins averages 6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, and makes 44% of his threes, while 6’1” sophomore guard Wabissa Bede hits 46% of his (albeit at a fairly low volume, scoring just 4.1 points per game). Add in 6’5” sophomore forward PJ Horne (5.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg) as depth behind Blackshear down low, and you’re looking at a very capable, highly-skilled team, and with lots of veteran, experienced leadership to boot.
The Hokies aren’t too shabby on defense, either, allowing a respectable 39.7% field goal shooting this year (tied for 47th in the country) and are 21st in the nation in turnovers forced per game, meaning they pair very good shooting with decent, opportunistic defense. That will be a tough combination for a young Irish team that isn’t great defensively and makes plenty of freshman mistakes with the ball.
Hokie to Watch
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Guard, Sophomore
There are a bunch of great shooters to watch out for on this Virginia Tech team, but Alexander-Walker is the ringleader, leading them in scoring and also contributing his fair share in terms of distributing the ball, hitting the glass, and forcing turnovers. If he has a good game, I doubt that means the Irish are hanging around in this one.
John Mooney, F, Junior
With how great Virginia Tech is at spreading you out and shooting the ball, it is CRITICAL that any and all defensive rebounds are collected by ND, cutting off second chances for Virginia Tech. Furthermore, in playing an opponent who almost exclusively runs out a 4-around-1 formation with 4 guards, it will be key that Mooney is able to own the paint and hopefully get Blackshear in foul trouble, making the Hokies that much more one-dimensional.
It’s on the road, against a GREAT shooting team, with a Notre Dame squad coming off a near-loss to a winless Coppin State team. No person in their right mind would pick ND to win this one, and despite the fact I’m not in my right mind, I won’t either.
I think Buzz’s Boys shoot the lights out as the young Irish players get a harsh reality check as to the stark difference between Coppin State and the top tier of the ACC.
The Hokies win this one 85-68.