Massive league challenge awaits answer from No. 14 Notre Dame men's basketball team

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Pages turn quickly at this stage of the college basketball season.

Doesn’t matter if a team has a big win or a lackluster loss. Plays well where everything falls into place or the puzzle pieces just don’t seem to fit. Deep in conference play and with February closing quickly, there’s no time to be satisfied or sulk.

The next chapter started for No. 14 Notre Dame (17-3; 6-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) well before a Purcell Pavilion sellout crowd had stepped out into the sunshine and 60-degree afternoon following an 18-point victory Saturday over Syracuse. While they celebrated a big conference step, the Irish already were thinking about taking the next one.

A bigger one. Maybe the biggest to date this season.

Notre Dame has accomplished a whole lot in its short three-plus-year ACC stay. It has won at places where it never before won. It’s won a conference tournament championship. It’s gone to consecutive Elite Eights.

After Saturday, it’s finally beaten Syracuse as ACC colleagues.

One conference hurdle remains.

Notre Dame is winless in four tries against No. 12 Virginia (15-3; 5-2), which comes calling Tuesday in front of what likely will be another sellout crowd.

Virginia was part of coach Mike Brey’s post-game speech Saturday, particularly for his veterans. The group, which includes tri-captains V.J. Beachem, Bonzie Colson and Steve Vasturia – had never beaten Syracuse. That demon was exorcised as the Irish shredded the Orange 2-3 zone defense.

Another demon awaits.

“We have a very focused upperclass group that has had their butts beat by Virginia a bunch,” Brey said. “We’re playing a team that we’ve had no answers for.”

Only questions. It isn’t that the Irish have had zero success against the Cavaliers that makes this one critical. It’s that Notre Dame hasn’t really been close. At home. On the road. With veteran guys. With new faces.

Virginia has owned the series. Owned Notre Dame.

“Each time we’ve played them, they’ve taken it to us,” Vasturia said. “Virginia’s had our number.”

In four league matchups, all in the regular season, Notre Dame’s average margin of defeat is 13.2 points. The Irish have trailed. Often by a lot. Their average maximum deficit is 19.5 points. Virginia led by 24 the first time the teams met in South Bend in 2014, then led by 25 later that season in Charlottesville. The Irish team that went 32-6 and won the conference tournament in 2015 trailed by as many as 10 points at home to the Cavaliers, who opened league play last season with an 11-point win in a game they led at one point by 19.

Notre Dame never has shot better than 49 percent from the field or better than 42 percent from 3. Its point average in four games? A pedestrian 56.

But it’s been a recent run of streak stopping for Notre Dame. It snapped Miami’s 21-game home win streak earlier this month, then snapped Virginia Tech’s 15-game home win streak less than two days later. On Saturday, a Notre Dame team that had won its first five league games by a combined 23 points pounded Syracuse by 18.

It was the first victory over the Orange in four ACC tries for the Irish, who have their sights set on another team in orange.

“They’re next on the list,” junior power forward Martinas Geben said of Virginia, which has won four in a row. “We just have to come out aggressive again and attacking and just making smart plays and take care of the basketball.”

It’s almost good in a way that Notre Dame had only one real day – Monday – of practice to prepare for Virginia. Having to decipher its pack-line defense is enough to cause coaches and players sleepless nights. Where are the gaps? How do the Irish get to their sweet shooting spots?

Preparing for the top defensive team in the ACC (53.2 ppg.) and best in the country is just not pleasant.

“It’s hard to prep for Virginia because they’re like a machine,” Irish guard Matt Farrell said. “They’re machine-like, just like us. They’re very good defensively. They play the gaps well.”

Patience on both ends is key. Not only will the Cavaliers guard you, but once they get the ball, they make you guard. Hard. For long possessions. Style points matter little. They’re fine with slowing the pace and winning games in the 60s and 50s.

Play fast and the Irish likely will get frustrated. Fast. A six-point deficit often feels doubled or tripled. On Saturday, Georgia Tech had 64 offensive possessions in a 61-49 loss. In contrast, Notre Dame had 70 against Syracuse and 76 the previous game against a faster flowing Florida State outfit.

This game will be slower. The Irish have to be OK with that. If not, trouble lurks.

“That’s something that’s going to be the most important thing, for us to be locked in mentally and understand that if our offense doesn’t go well, we have to focus on our defense,” Colson said. “We have to get kills, have to get rebounds and outlets. If we can get rebounds and outlets with one-and-dones, it’s hard for them to set up in their defense.”

Two years ago, Notre Dame won at North Carolina for the first time in school history. Last year, it did it at Duke. This is a group that believes it can make some history of its own this season.

This would be the way.

“Our group’s really confident,” Brey said.

“We’re playing really well right now,” Vasturia said.

“Should be a fun game,” Farrell said.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Austin Torres (1), Matt Farrell (5), Rex Pflueger (0) and No. 14 Notre Dame beat Syracuse for the first time as ACC colleagues on Saturday. Virginia is the next conference hurdle for the Irish to clear. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)

WHO: No. 14 Notre Dame (17-3 overall; 6-1 ACC) vs. No. 12 Virginia (15-3; 5-2).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Tuesday at 8 p.m.

TICKETS: A limited number available.

TV: WMYS.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

INTERNET: WatchESPN.com.

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

NOTING: Marial Shayok scored a career-high 19 points and guard London Perrantes added 11 points, six rebounds and two assists as Virginia beat Georgia Tech, 62-49, Saturday in Charlottesville. Virginia out-rebounded Georgia Tech 32-24, and held the Yellow Jackets to 21 second-half points. The Cavaliers shot a season-low 22.7 percent from 3. It was Virginia’s fourth-straight conference victory. … The Cavaliers have lost ACC games to Florida State (home) and Pittsburgh (away). … This starts a stretch of three of four and four of six on the road, where Virginia is 3-1 in ACC play with victories at Louisville, Boston College and Clemson. … Virginia also has a non-league home loss to No. 18 West Virginia. … Three starters return off last year’s Elite Eight team that finished 29-8, 13-5 and tied for second in the ACC. … Virginia has won 29, 30 and 30 games the last three seasons. It has 50 ACC wins since 2013-14. … Nine players average at least 13.2 minutes per game. Perrantes is the team’s leading scorer at 11.0 ppg. … Freshman Kyle Guy averages 8.3 points and 1.8 rebounds. He earned Indiana Mr. Basketball last spring after averaging 23.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.7 assists at Lawrence Central. … Virginia ranks 14th in the league for scoring offense (69.6) and first for scoring defense (53.2). The Cavaliers rank second in the league for field goal percentage (49.8), field goal percentage defense (38.3) and 3-point field goal percentage (39.9). … The Cavaliers have been ranked as high as No. 6 in this season’s Associated Press poll. … Notre Dame (1.7) and Virginia (1.5) are first and second in the league for assist/turnover ratio. … Virginia leads the all-time series 9-1, including 3-0 at Purcell Pavilion. … Notre Dame is 1-3 against ranked teams this season.

QUOTING: “They’re a great defensive team. We have to be extremely patient with the ball and make smart plays. We can’t be throwing it around or be loose with it.”

• Notre Dame junior power forward Martinas Geben on playing Virginia.