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Notre Dame Basketball: Virginia Game Preview

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Consider this a play-in game for the Fighting Irish

NCAA Basketball: Pittsburgh at Notre Dame Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Bonzie Colson is back, and suddenly the NCAA Tournament doesn’t seem too far out of reach for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. During an easy win over Pittsburgh on Wednesday, the Fighting Irish were talked about as one of the “next four out” in the tourney according to the guru Joe Lunardi. But the committee will consider the effect that Bonzie’s return has on the team, as well as the way they played while he was gone.

We all know Bonzie’s presence could have put the Fighting Irish in the win column a lot more often in ACC play given the amount of close games they played without him. That means a win over top-ranked Virginia on Saturday would put Notre Dame right back in the bubble conversation. Two wins in the ACC tournament after that could all but guarantee a tournament bid.

That’s the recipe, now let’s see if the head chef can deliver.

Quick Facts:

  • This is the 13th meeting all-time between Notre Dame and Virginia, with the Cavaliers leading the series 10-2 overall, and 5-1 in ACC matchups.
  • Mike Brey is one win away from reaching 500 in his coaching career. With the win against Pittsburgh, Brey notched his 400th win at Notre Dame.
  • T.J. Gibbs has scored in double figures in 18 straight games dating back to Dec. 21, 2017.
  • With Bonzie back in the lineup against Pitt, Notre Dame recorded its best scoring run this season in the first half when it outscored the Panthers 16-0 over a five-minute stretch.
  • The Fighting Irish and the Cavaliers have already played against each other in the ACC, NCAA and NIT tournaments in their short series.
  • The 2017-18 senior class of Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, Martinas Geben, Matt Gregory and graduate student Austin Torres recorded its 100th win as a class on Wednesday, and is the all-time winningest class at Notre Dame.
  • Farrell leads the ACC in three-point field goals made per game with 3.32, and that’s good enough for 12th in the nation.

WHERE: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, Virginia

WHEN: Saturday, March 3, 2018, 4 p.m. ET

HOW TO WATCH: ACC Network with Tom Werme and Bobby Cremins. Available on ACC Network affiliates across the country.

ESPN Radio with Bill Rozinski and Bob Valvano. Available via any ESPN Radio affiliate and at Sirius/XM Channel 80.

Notre Dame Basketball Radio Network with Jack Nolan and Zach Hillesland. Available locally at WSBT AM 960/FM 96.1, worldwide at WatchND.tv and via network affiliates.

Virginia Cavaliers (27-2, 16-1 ACC)

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia has been the runaway leader of the ACC for pretty much the entire season. Their only losses came against West Virginia back in December and Virginia Tech by one point. With its blowout win over Pitt last week (when they held the Panthers to 7 points in the first half) the Cavaliers clinched the outright ACC championship for the third time in the last five years.

The one thing everyone knows about this team is its incredible defense. Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense (52.6 ppg), turnovers per game (8.9) and is second only to Notre Dame in fouls per game (13.9). The Cavaliers also rank third in field goal percentage defense (37.6 percent), sixth in three-point field goal percentage defense (29.9 percent), seventh in scoring margin (14.9), and tenth in turnover margin (4.2) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.52).

If you’ve ever watched Virginia play, you’ve probably heard about the “pack line defense,” and if you’re like me you never bothered to look up what that actually means. So here’s my best one-sentence explanation of it: A variation of man-to-man defense in which the player guarding the ball pressures his man while the other four players remain inside an imaginary line within 16 feet of the rim in gap/help positions.

The one thing everyone doesn’t know about this team is, well, its players. For the No. 1 team in the nation it doesn’t seem right that it’s hard for the common basketball fan to think of any player’s name off the top of their head, but that’s Virginia basketball. Their defense is so solid and they play so slow and patient offensively that they rarely have an offensive star.

Sophomore guard Kyle Guy leads the way for the Cavaliers with 14.3 points per game, senior guard Devon Hall averages 11.7 points per game, and sophomore guard Ty Jerome gets 10.5 per game while leading the team in assists. As a whole, the Cavaliers average just 67.5 points per game.

Here’s the thing about a team with great defense and mediocre offense; come tournament time, they don’t have enough to win. In the past five years under Tony Bennett, Virginia has only made it to the Elite Eight once (where they lost to #10 Syracuse). They’ve done a little better in the ACC Tournament, making it to the championship game twice and winning one title during that five-year span.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Cavalier to Watch:

Isaiah Wilkins, F, Senior

Wilkins leads by example on this stout defense. The 6-foot-7, 227 pound forward leads the team in blocks (45) and rebounds (6.4 rpg) and is second in steals (34). He averages just 5.9 points per game but that is clearly not his role on this team. He’s a hustle guy who picks up those stats despite having the 6-foot-10 junior center Jack Salt also playing in the starting lineup all season long. But the real reason I chose Wilkins is because he’ll almost definitely be matched up with Bonzie, and all eyes are going to be on Bonzie.

Irish X-Factor:

Bonzie Colson, F, Senior

I think it’s safe to say that Bonzie will be the x-factor in every game the rest of the way. The senior’s long-awaited return to the lineup not only gave Notre Dame an obvious talent boost, but an emotional boost as well. Bonzie was practically an assistant coach while sitting out with his foot injury, constantly encouraging the younger players on the team and giving them advice. Now that he’s back, he looks ready to put that passion back on the floor and leave it all there. It is also up to Bonzie, however, to make sure he fits back in with the offense that developed while he was out. If he can get his rebounds and play great defense while getting his teammates involved, his points will come naturally.

Prediction:

Notre Dame 65 - Virginia 64

Why not? I think Notre Dame actually matches up pretty well with Virginia because they have balance offensively, can get hot from behind-the-arc and are comfortable playing at Virginia’s pace. Anything is possible, but I’m not just picking a Fighting Irish win. I’m picking a Bonzie buzzer beater. All hail Bonzie.