The long, unrelenting nightmare is almost over.
This afternoon, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish men’s basketball team (13-17, 3-14 ACC) will finish out one of the most painful — if not THE most painful — seasons in the long Notre Dame tenure of head coach Mike Brey.
The Irish travel to Pittsburgh to take on the current last place team in the ACC, the Pittsburgh Panthers (12-18, 2-15 ACC). The Irish, of course, are only JUST above them in the standings (see graphic below), and considering their records, this game will decide who finishes 14th in the conference, and who finishes 15th.
So, without any more lallygagging, let’s dive into the facts and figures surrounding this grotesque match-up.
- This will be the 65th meeting between these two teams, with Notre Dame leading the all-time series 34-30 and the ACC series 4-3 (per Alan Wasielewski, Associate Athletics Communication Director)
- Today will mark the 1st head coaching match up between Mike Brey and Jeff Capel, both former Duke assistant coaches. While at Duke from 1987-95, Brey helped recruit Capel to the Blue Devils and coached him during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Only two players in the nation have scored 430+ points, grabbed 330+ rebounds, connected on 30+ three-point field goals and have 40+ assists — John Mooney and South Dakota State’s Mike Daum (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Mooney is on pace to become the 3rd Notre Dame player in the past four seasons to lead the ACC in rebounding (currently at the top of the league with an 11.2 average). Zach Auguste (10.7, 2016) and Bonzie Colson (10.1, 2017) also led the ACC in rebounding. Should Mooney maintain his league-leading status, ND would become the first ACC program to have a player lead the league in rebounding 3 out of 4 seasons since Tim Duncan did it three straight years for Wake Forest from 1995-97 (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Mooney is averaging 12.6 rebounds in conference play this season - a mark that leads all major conference players - and is fourth in the country for all conference players (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Mooney leads the ACC and is tied for 6th in the country with 19 double-doubles, and is tied for 2nd in double-doubles among major conference players (per Alan Wasielewski)
- Mooney has pulled down 30% of Notre Dame’s total rebounds this season — 335 of 1,095 (per Alan Wasielewski)
Where: Petersen Events Center — Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
When: Saturday, March 9th at 12:00 PM ET
How to Watch:
- TV: Raycom Sports with Wes Durham and Mike Gminski; Affiliate List | WatchESPN
- Radio: Notre Dame Basketball Network with Jack Nolan and Zach Hillesland (Notre Dame ‘09); also available on the Notre Dame app
Pittsburgh Panthers (12-18 2-15 ACC)
The Pittsburgh Panthers (101st in KenPom), just like Notre Dame (84th in KenPom), are a very bad basketball team.
Let’s take a look at both squads and some of the horrible statistical rankings they boast.
- 202nd in the country in free throw %
- 208th in the country in rebound margin
- 229th in the country in fouls per game
- 245th in the country in scoring offense
- 254th in the country in turnovers committed per game
- 278th in the country in three-point percentage
- 287th in the country in assists per game
- 294th in the country in field goal %
- 300th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio
- 210th in the country in scoring margin
- 225th in the country in assists per game
- 247th in the country in steals per game
- 266th in the country in scoring offense
- 288th in the country in rebounding margin
- 306th in the country in three point %
- 310th in the country in turnovers forced
- 342nd in the country in field goal %
Pittsburgh is a funny team, though. The Panthers have just two wins in ACC play, but unlike the Irish, whose three conference wins have come against fellow bad teams like the Boston College Eagles and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, Pitt has taken down two likely NCAA Tournament teams — the Florida State Seminoles and the Louisville Cardinals. They picked up those wins within the first four games of conference play, making it look like they could be a surprise contender for a bubble spot in the tourney.
Unfortunately, that early success didn’t hold up at all. The Panthers haven’t won since January 14th, when they topped the ‘Noles by 13 points (somehow). Since then, they have lost 13 straight games, dropping games to all the other also-rans of the ACC, including the Wake Forest Demon Deacons, Boston College, Georgia Tech, and the Miami Hurricanes.
Add on losses to teams like Niagara and West Virginia in non-conference play, and the season simply has not been a fun one for a Pitt team that appears to have some solid young talent, but whose young talent has clearly not taken any significant steps toward being a good team yet (sound familiar, ND fans???).
Four of the Panthers’ top 6 scorers are freshmen or sophomores, starting with 6’3” freshman guard Xavier Johnson, who’s had a very good rookie year putting up 15.8 points, 3.9 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 1.2 steals per game while shooting 38% from long range.
Johnson is supported by 6’5” senior Jared Wilson-Frame, who, until this year, had been the best player on a horrible Pitt team the last few years. Wilson-Frame averages 12.2 points and 4.8 rebounds per game and is also a good shooter, making 39% of his shots from deep. The two of them combine to make an athletic pair of snipers from the perimeter.
The next two scorers for the Panthers are true freshmen in Johnson’s class, showing just how well Jeff Capel did putting together a frosh class who could come in and contribute. 6’3” guard Trey McGowens (11.3 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2 spg, 31% 3FG) and 6’6” guard Au’Diese Toney (7.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg) add more length and scoring ability, with both of them being better at attacking the hoop than launching from deep like Johnson and Wilson-Frame.
Add in some size down low with 6’10” sophomore Terrell Brown (5.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.9 bpg) and 6’9” junior Kene Chukwuka (4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 53% FG, amazing name), and Pitt has some decent pieces that could certainly give a team like ND trouble as they flail wildly about as a collective offensive unit and attempt to accidentally toss the ball into the hoop.
6’6” junior guard Malik Ellison (6 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and 6’3” senior guard Sidy Ndir (5.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 2 apg, 0.9 spg) round out the rotation and provide more athleticism and defensive energy.
In terms of what Pitt does well (or, at least, relatively well compared to the bulleted list above), the Panthers are GREAT at getting to the free throw line early and often. They’re ranked 14th in the country in free throw attempts and 19th in raw free throws made, pointing to how well they attack the hoop and put themselves in a position to get free points.
Unfortunately, that pesky #202 ranking in free throw percentage means they don’t convert nearly enough, but they nevertheless could make the typically pristine ND defense (in terms of fouls — the Irish are 2nd in the country in terms of least fouls committed per game) foul just a bit more.
Pitt is also 49th in turnovers forced (another one that will be interesting, considering ND is 6th in least turnovers per game), 53rd in FG %, and 78th in offensive rebounds per game. The Panthers do a few things that could take an already very uncomfortable Irish team out of their comfort zone, so it will be interesting to see how ND responds, especially with a shorter rotation once again thanks to Nikola “Khal” Djogo’s torn labrum that has him out for the rest of the year.
Panther to Watch
Xavier Johnson, Guard, Freshman
Johnson is the best player on the Pitt roster already and he’s just a true freshman. He shoots it well and just has a knack for getting buckets, so if he’s able to get going against this bad ND defense, I could see his scoring leading a Panther offensive surge that earns them a HUGE win to clinch 14th place.
T.J. Gibbs, Guard, Junior
John “Mutton” Mooney’s double-double is almost guaranteed in every game, let alone against the current worst team in the ACC. So for the Irish to really push for this 4th ACC win, they will need a second scorer to step up and have a good game. Gibbs NEEDS to finish the year well to build a little confidence heading into his senior offseason, so this is a big moment for him to do his thing against a bad Pitt team.
This game is more or less a toss-up, but with it being in Pittsburgh and with this Irish team’s penchant for crumbling down the stretch, I think the Panthers take this one and have a WILD celebration for their 14th place title.
Pittsburgh wins it 66-62.