Sitting at 11-2, with close losses to Villanova and Purdue, I think most Irish fans (and Brey) would have taken this start. But the way they blew double-digit leads in both losses makes you wonder if ND could be perched in the Top 10 at a perfect 13-0.
With the 11-game gauntlet coming up to start the ACC slate, fans need to remember that the Irish are going to lose some games. It’s a certainty. This league, from top to bottom, is as strong as it ever has been. Plus, the way the schedule sets up, ND gets the majority of the upper tier at home (Louisville/Virginia/Duke), with incredibly difficult road games against the middle of the pack (Pitt/Miami/VT/FSU/NC State) in addition to trips to Louisville and Chapel Hill. 6-5 in the first 11 would be quite an accomplishment, and I’m pretty sure Brey would sign up for that right now.
Before we look forward, let’s look back and try to figure out why the Irish sit at 11-2, and not 13-0, or even 9-4. I’m going to throw a lot of numbers out, and compare the performances against quality competition (six games – Colorado/N’Western/Iowa/Fort Wayne/Villanova/Purdue) with the stats against the cupcakes. The numbers show what the Irish are going to need to compete for a double-bye (Top 4 finish) in the ACC.
Five Things We’ve Learned
1. Matt Farrell is not afraid of the spotlight.
While his play in the Legends Classic was his coming out party, his first half gems against Villanova and Purdue (12 points and 6 assists in each first half) indicate how good this offense can be when he is rolling. Whether he fatigued in the second half of each game, or two good coaches in Wright and Painter made adjustments to limit his productivity, we don’t know. But the numbers reveal that when the competition gets better, Farrell steps up.
Quality: 17.7 PPG, 6.8 APG, 3.15 A/T Ratio, 50% FG, 37.9% 3FG
Cupcakes: 9.3 PPG, 4.9 APG, 2.27 A/T Ratio, 41.1 % FG, 37.5% 3FG
Farrell almost needs the step-up in competition to bring out the best of him, as he has been average in the seven gimme wins. That bodes well for ACC play.
2. Beach needs to step up his game.
Rightfully so, V.J. Beachem raised the expectations for his senior season with stellar play in last year’s NCAA Tournament. So far, we haven’t seen the same player. Beach looks like he is trying to find his place in the offense, with the emergence of Matt Farrell, and has production has plummeted in the toughest games for the Irish. At times, he forces ill-advised mid-range jumpers that may work against the NC A&Ts and Seattle’s of the world. Then, at other times, he will just disappear for long stretches of the game. In the second half against Purdue, after 10 first half points, he took one shot (missed) and turned the ball over twice. He’s certainly been an enigma so far.
Quality: 12.0 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 33.3% FG, 28.9% 3FG
Cupcakes: 18.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 50.5% FG, 44.4% 3FG
Huge difference. The top set of numbers aren’t going to cut it in ACC play. Beach is the key to this team making a deep run in March, and if he finds his rhythm (and I think he will), watch out.
3. The Bonz likes the spotlight too.
This was a given. We saw Bonz explode in the first half against Duke in the ACC semis two years ago. He did it Duke again last year, in Cameron, with 31 points and a few choice comments directed to the Duke bench and Coach K.
Bonz struggled a bit against Villanova, but went bucket for bucket with Caleb Swanigan in the loss to Purdue (23 points, 10 rebounds). He continues to find unorthodox ways to score, and although he has struggled recently from deep, the ability to step out and shoot the triple adds another piece to the puzzle for opponents in trying to stop him.
Quality: 18.3 PPG, 12.0 RPG, 45.2% FG, 33.3 MPG, 5 double-doubles
Cupcakes: 14.4 PPG, 8.7 PPG, 54.9% FG, 27.0 MPG, 2 double-doubles
Bonz has been pretty steady in every game, with a slight uptick in performance against better teams. His stats per 40 minutes is almost identical though: 22.0/14.4 vs. quality and 21.3/12.9 vs. non-quality. He’s a monster.
4. The Rifleman may find himself on the pine a lot in ACC play.
We know Matt Ryan can shoot the triple incredibly well, but he needs to do something else to be able to see an increase in minutes. Defensively, he doesn’t have the lateral quickness to stay with perimeter players. What could keep him on the bench is his rebounding. In the six games against quality teams, Ryan has played 49 minutes (8.2 per game). He has two rebounds TOTAL in those six games. Two.
Ryan is an incredibly talented offensive player, but he’s going to have to develop on the defensive end and crash the boards if he wants to get PT.
5. Free throws are a weapon, but the Irish need to get there more.
The Irish lead the country in free throw shooting by a wide margin at 84.7% (Marquette is second at 81.4%). In the two losses, they shot 92.8%. Problem is, they only had 14 attempts in 80 minutes. It certainly is a tremendous weapon, but right now the Irish are like Ronda Rousey stepping into the Octagon and not using her judo.
Ten Quick Things to Know about the ACC
1. Grayson Allen is still tripping dudes, and is now suspended indefinitely.
2. Lunardi has 10 of 15 ACC teams in his way-too-early bracket projection.
3. NC State has an exceptional freshman point guard, Dennis Smith. Case in point…
4. After ten ACC wins last year, Buzz Williams has Virginia Tech at 11-1. Going to be a tough road test for the Irish.
5. Virginia is still annoyingly good at defense. They just shut down Louisville, and are giving up 47.7 points per game, which only leads the country by 9.6 points per game. Ridiculous.
6. After hearing about Allen and Duke’s freshmen for all of November, Luke Kennard has established himself as the most productive Blue Devil. As we saw last year in Cameron against ND, the kid can shoot it.
7. UNC has early losses to Kentucky and Indiana, but once Joel Berry is fully healthy, this is a scary team. Justin Jackson has been superb.
8. After an improbable run to the Final Four last year, Syracuse is not good. They lost to St. John’s at home, which is bad in itself. Add in that they lost by 33…and Boeheim has himself a dumpster fire.
9. The Irish get the Cards on Wednesday in their ACC home opener. While UVa stifled them, they were coming off an impressive win over Kentucky.
10. Boston College and Georgia Tech still stink. ND gets each twice.
Michael Young and Jamel Artis not only have been at Pitt for 17 years each, but both are still really good and average over 20 points per game. Young is more of an interior threat, but like Bonz, he has added the triple to his repertoire (45.7%). Artis just seems to do everything well.
Last year, the Irish were blitzed early in each half by Pitt, losing 86-82. Young, Artis and Sheldon Jeter combined for 62 points, as the Panthers had their way with ND inside.
No more Jamie Dixon, as he bolted for TCU. Kevin Stallings, who always seemed to get more credit than he deserved at Vandy, now runs the show. I’ve heard in a few places that Stallings has Pitt playing more up-tempo, but they still rank 228th in adjusted tempo on kenpom.com (ND is 223rd).
One thing Pitt no longer does is play defense, evidenced by their 112-106 win over Marshall earlier this week.
Yeah, the last two games against Colgate and St. Peter’s were duds. The hangover is kicked, and I see the Irish giving a spirited effort for all 40 minutes. Time to earn your preseason accolades, Beach.
Notre Dame 79 Pittsburgh 71