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Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Kentucky Wildcats: Elite Eight Preview

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How do the Irish and Wildcats match up tonight? Immovable object vs. unstoppable force.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Welcome to the Elite Eight, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation. This is the one round of the NCAA Tournament where Kentucky as a recent, genuinely bad memory — the 2010 East Regional Final in Syracuse against West Virginia that I always think of as the "1-3-1 game," where Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers dismissed the cold-shooting John Wall/Boogie Cousins-led Wildcats. Any remaining demons from that loss should have been exorcised on Thursday.

This is by far the most challenging opponent Kentucky has faced so far in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. As you may know, the Irish defeated both the Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels on the way to the 2015 ACC Tournament title. Notre Dame has lost only one lopsided game all season at Duke, and have lost at home only twice this season.

Notre Dame this season has been very effective despite a lack of good Division I size, and that is mostly due to their outstanding shooting — the Irish are the best eFG% shooting team in all of Division I. It’s also important to note that the Irish have faced only one defensive challenge similar to Kentucky all season long, and that was their January 10th game against the Virginia Cavaliers at the Joyce Center in South Bend. The Irish lost that contest by 6 points, a typical Virginia performance, and were held to only 42.4% shooting. It’s worth noting that despite Virginia’s defensive efficiency, they have nothing like the length and depth of Kentucky.

General

Game Particulars

Date: Saturday, March 26th
Time 8:49 PM EDT
Place: Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH
TV: TBS
Radio: UK Sports Network
Live Video: March Madness
Live Audio: Westwood One
Live Stats: Stats

See the full preview at UKAthletics.com.

Season so far for Notre Dame

Notre Dame played a very weak non conference schedule according to Ken Pomeroy, who reckons their NC strength of schedule only the 347th best in Division I — 5th from the very bottom of the division. Nevertheless, the Irish did defeat Michigan State in overtime, no mean feat. Their only non-conference loss came in a 1-point loss to Providence, whom you’ll remember that Kentucky defeated by 20 on the road.

In the conference portion of the season, the Irish lost only four times, all four to very good teams — the aforementioned Virginia and Duke, at Pittsburgh and at home to the Syracuse Orange. The Syracuse loss is somewhat perplexing, but it is notable that the Orange are a very tall, long team (11th tallest in the nation) and they held Notre Dame to a season-low 0.85 points/possession — Kentucky-worthy numbers.

The Irish ran through the ACC Tournament, struggling a bit with Miami but shooting past Duke and North Carolina convincingly. They got to this point in the NCAA Tournament by defeating Northeastern in a tough contest, Butler in overtime, and the Wichita St. Shockers in a shooting tour-de-force.

Series history

Kentucky and Notre Dame have met an astonishing 61 times in history, and the Irish are one of Kentucky’s most successful non-conference opponents against the Wildcats, having won 19 times (31%). Notre Dame qualifies as a genuine, bona fide Kentucky rival, even though they haven’t gotten much play in that role lately due to both a lack of meetings and a general lack of national success for Notre Dame.

Interestingly enough, from 1936-1942, the Irish absolutely owned Kentucky, defeating the Wildcats a remarkable seven (7) straight times. There can’t be more than two or three teams in the nation that have ever enjoyed a seven-game winning streak against Kentucky anytime in history, Florida being the only one I can instantly recall.

From 1946-1952, Kentucky and Notre Dame played every season. The rivalry took a break until 1958, and resumed until 1982, when the long-running series was terminated as an annual affair. Since then, Kentucky and Notre Dame have met both in the regular season and post season, as well as in "Classics" such as the now-defunct Big Four Classic, a total of 16 times. Kentucky went on a long winning streak starting in 1990 that was ended in Billy Gillispie’s tragic NIT season. Kentucky lost the last game they played against Notre Dame in Calipari’s almost equally tragic NIT season.

The Wildcats come into this contest with a bit of a score to settle.

Stats

Roster

No. Name Status Ht./Wt. Pos. Yr. GP GS MPG PPG RPG APG SPG BPG
22 Jerian Grant S** 6-5/204 Guard SR 37 37 37.0 16.6 3.1 6.7 1.6 0.5
11 Demetrius Jackson S** 6-1/198 Guard SO 37 37 34.5 12.6 3.6 3.0 1.6 0.3
32 Steve Vasturia S** 6-5/211 Guard SO 37 37 32.4 9.9 3.0 1.7 1.1 0.1
24 Pat Connaughton S** 6-5/218 Guard/Forward SR 37 37 35.5 12.6 7.4 1.5 0.7 1.0
30 Zach Auguste S** 6-10/240 Forward JR 36 35 24.4 12.7 6.4 0.8 0.7 0.7
3 V.J. Beachem MR* 6-8/200 Forward SO 32 0 15.0 6.1 1.5 0.4 0.2 0.2
35 Bonzie Colson MR 6-5/226 Forward FR 31 1 12.0 5.6 2.7 0.4 0.6 0.7
23 Martinas Geben R 6-9/255 Forward FR 22 1 8.8 1.6 1.6 0.4 0.0 0.4
1 Austin Torres R+ 6-7/228 Forward SO 27 0 7.1 2.0 1.6 0.1 0.1 0.0
20 Austin Burgett R* 6-9/228 Forward JR 20 0 7.0 1.7 1.4 0.3 0.3 0.1
5 Matt Farrell R 6-1/173 Guard FR 15 0 4.1 0.9 0.4 0.5 0.1 0.0
15 Eric Katenda R* 6-9/236 Forward JR 15 0 2.1 0.9 0.5 0.1 0.1 0.1
21 Matt Gregory R@ 6-6/190 Forward FR 11 0 1.9 0.4 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.0




























Legend
S Starter
MR Major reserve
R Reserve
* Returning player
** Returning starter
+ Eligible transfer/red shirt
- Ineligible
@ Walk on
& Injured, not available

Team comparison

Rank and Records ND UK
RPI #10 #1
Strength of Schedule #68 #44
Overall 32-5 37-0
Conference 14-4 18-0
Home 17-2 19-0
Away 7-2 10-0
Top 25 8-2 6-0
RPI Top 50 11-3 13-0
Kenpom.com #9 #1

Four Factors

Offensive

nd-uk off ff

Defensive

nd-uk defensive ff

Notre Dame Team Notes

Notre Dame …

  • … Is a great offensive team, averaging 1.22 points/possession on the season, 2nd in the nation.
  • … is a poor defensive team, even worse than West Virginia. They allow 0.99 points/possession, worst among all remaining tournament teams, and almost 15 points/100 possessions worse than Kentucky.
  • … takes excellent care of the basketball. They turn it over only 14.6% of the time, 3rd best in the nation.
  • … forces very few turnovers. Unless Mike Brey springs a surprise, pressure defense is not in their repertoire.
  • … is a lethal 3-point shooting team at 39%. They are also a decent 3-point defensive team, holding opponents to under 33%.
  • … blocks a surprising number of shots, almost 7%.
  • … does not foul. They are sending teams to the line on less than 24% of field goal attempts, 2nd in the nation.
  • … attempts a lot of threes. 38% of their shots are from beyond the arc, and it accounts for almost 31% of their scoring.
  • … makes their free throws — as a team, they shoot 74%.
  • … plays a bunch of different defenses, and likes to switch them mid-possession.
  • … is a very poor offensive rebounding team and below average defensive rebounding team. This doesn’t matter much to them, because their offense is so efficient they don’t need offensive rebounds or turnovers.

Notre Dame Player notes

  • Senior combo guard Jerian Grant, son former Oklahoma star Harvey Grant (brother of Chicago Bulls forward Horace, who played on three of the Michael Jordan championship teams) will be at least the second-best player on the floor. Grant is an athletic wing who can score from anywhere and in every imaginable way. He is not a particularly great 3-point shooter, but he can make bunches of them when he gets hot. He is extremely efficient offensively, an outstanding passer, a good ballhandler and a fine defender. He really has no significant weaknesses in his game.

    No matter who guards Grant, and it will probably be Aaron or Willie Cauley-Stein, depending on how Calipari wants to go, will have their hands full. Calipari will probably try everybody but Tyler Ulis on him, because he would post Ulis up. Grant leads the team in assists and must be considered the point guard, but Notre Dame’s offense does not really hew to traditional roles. Think of him as a co-point with Demitrius Jackson.

  • Junior center Zach Auguste is the only real size on the squad. At 6‘10" and 242 pounds, Auguste is a skilled inside player, by far the best overall rebounder, a decent shot blocker and a high-percentage shooter. He is the only member of the Irish who can be considered a poor free throw shooter. He will have to contend with Karl-Anthony Towns and Dakari Johnson, both of whom are bigger, stronger, and at least as skilled.

  • Senior Pat Connaughton is a remarkable athlete who is also a highly coveted baseball player. Connaughton shoots over 42% from three and is a vastly underrated athlete who can really get in the air. He has good size for a two guard, but plays power forward for Notre Dame’s undersized lineup. He is a good defensive rebounder, doesn’t turn it overs, and doesn’t foul. He will get a steady dose of Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee and possibly Devin Booker and the Harrison twins.

  • Despite the reputation of Grant, sophomore point guard Demitrius Jackson might be the most dangerous player on the team. Jackson is only 6;1", but he is an elite athlete who can run and jump as well as anyone on Kentucky, and has a vertical leap well in excess of 36 inches. He is lethal from anywhere, shooting the best percentage on the team (43%). He is a blur on the break and must be accounted for at all times. Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker will all be guarding him.

  • Sophomore wing Steve Vasturia is yet another deadly 3-point shooter who is quickly becoming known as the baby-faced assassin. Despite his youthful looks, he has excellent 2-guard or small forward size, is a decent athlete, and shoots almost 41% from the arc. He has been particularly deadly in the tournament as teams have seen him as the least threatening of the Irish shooters — he is anything but.

  • Sophomore V.J. Beachem is the guy who spells Auguste, along with freshman Bonzie Colson. Mike Brey plays a very short bench, and the guys that do come in are mainly placeholders and are not major threats to do anything in particular except give the main players a break and try not to mess up. Notre Dame’s players, all being of similar size, tend to shift around and cover each other for short breaks.

Injuries

Kentucky
  • Junior forward Alex Poythress tore his ACL early in the year, and is out for the season.
  • Sophomore Aaron Harrison dislocated a finger on his non-shooting (left) hand against West Virginia. He is expected to start against the Fighting Irish, but since the injury is fresh and he hasn’t had time to integrate it, it may limit his effectiveness.
Notre Dame
  • No known injuries.

Analysis

There is only one mandate for Kentucky in this game — force Notre Dame to put the ball on the floor and yield no open shots. It’s important to note, however, that every one of Notre Dame’s 38 opponents have known this coming into the game, and only six times have they successfully prevented the Irish from shooting them into oblivion. Make no mistake, defending Notre Dame’s shooters, which is to say, the entire team, will be a daunting task unlike any Kentucky has faced all season.

Having said that, Kentucky is made to defend a team like Notre Dame. Most teams are not big enough on the perimeter to really challenge their shooters, but Kentucky is actually bigger than they are at every single position, and significantly bigger at most of them. Notre Dame will be forced to shoot with a lot of big players flying at them, and even though they are sure to make some, it’s really hard to make a high percentage when that happens.

Defensively, Notre Dame is helpless against Kentucky. The Irish are too thin to challenge the Wildcats much on defense, and cannot afford to let their better defenders, Jerian Grant and Zach Auguste, get into significant foul trouble. They aren’t going to just let Kentucky score, but the Wildcats will get great looks every time down the floor if they are patient. The weakness of the Irish on the glass will generate a lot of extra shots for Kentucky.

It is on defense where Kentucky will win or lose this game. This thing is kind of like a video game — you know exactly what you have to do, and you know if you do it you are likely to win, but can you focus and repeatedly do the little things necessary possession after possession. It’s going to be a mental grind for the Wildcats to stick to the sharply-executing Irish shooters.

The only great defensive team the Irish have faced all season — Virginia — beat them in their own gym. That proves that Notre Dame can be defended despite the gaudy numbers they have put up all season, and Kentucky is an even better defensive team than the Wahoos. The problem with Notre Dame is that, like Kentucky, they have weapons at every position except possibly center. Auguste is a nice player, but I’d hesitate to call him a weapon in the sense of a Jerian Grant or Karl-Anthony Towns.

In summary, this is, as Keith pointed out, the classic irresistible force-immovable object paradox on the basketball court. Keith also pointed out correctly that Notre Dame is very similar to the 2014 Michigan Wolverines, a team that Kentucky defeated last season in the Elite Eight on their way to the NCAA Tournament championship game. The Wolverines were actually bigger all around than the Irish are this season, but not by a lot. Kentucky, though, is much different — bigger, more talented, and much, much deeper.

In the end, this game will be won by Kentucky with their depth and size. Notre Dame is unlikely to fold like West Virginia did — the old adage that great shooting cures a multitude of ills must not be given short shrift — but as the game wears on, Notre Dame will be forced to make more and more "hero" plays by Kentucky’s defense, and the long grind of the game will get to Notre Dame’s short rotation much sooner than most teams.