SCOUTING THE FIGHTING IRISH
Notre Dame features a balanced scoring attack across its starting five -- making it a difficult squad to defend. Any of the Irish starters can handle the scoring load, as was demonstrated on Sunday when Pat Connaughton, who averaged fewer than seven points per game, tossed in 23 points and snared 11 rebounds in a win over Marquette. West Virginia will have to play solid team defense and not lose anyone in the half court, as the Irish will be poised to take advantage with a patient offensive attack.
Notre Dame ostensibly starts a four-guard lineup, but as two of those players are 6-5 and another 6-8, the Irish aren't woefully undersized. Jerian Grant, one of the mid-sized guards, averages 12.7 points per game and is the best distributor on the team, having dealt out 105 assists against just 36 turnovers. Eric Atkins scores at 12.9 points per game and is also solid with the ball, while freshman Pat Connaughton averages 7.6 points and 4.0 rebounds per game. The fourth "guard" 6-8 Scott Martin, averages 9.0 points and 6.1 rebounds per outing.
The backcourt quartet doesn't jump out at anoyone athletically, but they spread the floor, pass the ball well and are all legitimate threats to knock down three pointers. Even Martin, who has 19 treys on the season, can make uncontested shots from the outside, so defenders have to get out and cover the Irish from distance. Add in backup Alex Dragicevich (another tall guard at 6-7), who has another 27 threes, and the task becomes even more difficult. When Notre Dame moves the ball in the halfcourt and makes a few threes, they are very difficult to beat.
On the inside, forward Jack Cooley is the beneficiary of that spread look, and he's also taken on the role of inside go-to guy after Tim Abromaitis' season was ended with a torn ACL. That's allowed Cooley to develop as a post player, where he's made 59% of his tries. Fouling him isn't a great option, either, as he has made 71.8% of his free throws. He's recently pushed his scoring average into double figures, and now stands at 10.7 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.
Backup Tom Knight adds 3.4 points in just over 10 minutes of action per contest, but it's pretty much Cooley's show in the lane and on the blocks. While he's a solid player, the Irish don't have the numbers of big bodies that they have featured in previous seasons, and as a result aren't as strong on the boards or in second chance points as they have been in years past.
West Virginia figures to go inside against Notre Dame and force its "guard\forwards" to help with interior defense. Will Deniz Kilicli be able to duplicate the effort he had against Providence, and help free up Kevin Jones for more work in the lane and around the hoop?
It won't be a surprise to see WVU try to wear down Notre Dame inside, but that's certainly a switch from past seasons, when the Irish featured lots of big bodies and welcomed forays into the lane with lots of bumping and pushing. The Irish will likely counter their lack of bigs with a 2-3 zone - a defense that West Virginia has had mixed success against this year. WVU got the ball inside against Syracuse and scored effectively, but was futile in its efforts against St. John's version. Providence also floated a 2-3 for most of the game, with the Mountaineers ranging from awful to very good through stretches of the contest.
WVU 16-8, 6-5
ND 15-8, 7-3
WVU - 25
ND - 55
There are a couple of things to watch when West Virginia goes against a 2-3. First, who is playing the high post? WVU has used both Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli to get the ball on the elbow and bewteen the guards, but Jones is a bit more effective in that spot, as he is a threat to shoot from that range and make it. Still, expect Kilicli to switch up high on occasion, as that would let Jones operate on the low block.
WVU has also used Truck Bryant as a passer from the spot, and that's one to keep an eye on. He obviously has to be covered when he gets the ball there, and that creates chacnes for both Jones and Kilicli to post up, with Jones have the option of running off a screen and heading for a mid-range position on the floor as well.
Defensively, WVU must be patient. Notre Dame has no problem with working the shot clock down to the final few seconds, and always is ready to make the "one more" pass that results in a good shot. WVU can't guard for 28 or 30 seconds and then relax, or commit bail out fouls that result in free throws or a fresh shot clock. It has to guard until the shot clock buzzer, otherwise Notre Dame is going to get the kinds of shots that lead to wins.
Headline from one of the sections in Notre Dame's game notes for the WVU contest:
"IRISH ENJOY HOME COOKING IN CONFERENCE PLAY"
We'll leave the commentary to you.
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Faced with injuries and illnesses, Notre Dame has used nine different starting lineups this season in 22 games. No Notre Dame player has started every game this season, and six different players have made their first career starts this year.
The Irish may have found their sweet spot, however. Eric Atkins, Pat Connaughton, Jack Cooley, Jerian Grant and Scott Martin have started the last three games -- all wins for the Irish.
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West Virginia's overtime game with Providence was its fifth such contest in 2011-12 -- tying the school mark for most in a single season. Oddly enough, WVU has played five overtime games in a year in five different seasons, including 1975, 1980, 1981 and 1983. The seniors on that 1983 squad must have been really tired.
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Kevin Jones Note of the Week: WVU's national player of the year candidate will likely pass Ron Williams for eighth place on the all-time field goal scoring list on Wednesday. Jones has 669 buckets, and stands just one behind Williams. Lowes Moore (680) and Chris Brooks (690) stand seventh and sixth, respectively.