I dislike Notre Dame a decent amount, and chances are you do too. But unfortunately for us, the Fighting Irish are doing pretty well this season, so a road trip to South Bend doesn't spell good things for a Syracuse squad trying to just play out the string for pride. Lame.
Obviously this has been a pretty great regular season for Notre Dame; did Fighting Irish fans expect it, or is this a bit of a shock?
While I don't think anyone but the most wildly optimistic fans had the Irish in second at this point in the season, I wouldn't classify this as shocking. The bitter disappointment of last year tempered a lot of expectations around the Irish. I had them pegged for about 6th in our preseason preview. For ND to be this good, senior captain Pat Connaughton had to be a rock, Demetrius Jackson had to make the leap in his sophomore year, Zach Auguste needed to show a ton of maturity, and Jerian Grant had to come back focused, determined and prepared to be special. If 1-2 of those things came true, we'd be in good shape. Thankfully, all have been on display this year, and Notre Dame has had a lot of success so far.
Jerian Grant's a great basketball player -- does he have any weaknesses in his game, though? And recommendations on how to best defend the dynamic guard?
If you're going to get picky, he's made a few turnovers here and there, but when you're dishing out 6+ assists and scoring 16+ points per game in conference play, you'll live with 2.5 turnovers per game. It has been remarkable the number of times Jerian has followed a turnover with an immediate steal, so you know they eat at the guy. I'm going to defer the rest of my answer because it'll show up in the next one.
Hate to revisit, but: What the hell happened to you guys at Cameron Indoor?
The Irish looked young and intimidated, and the atmosphere was more than they were ready for. On top of that, Duke came out like a house on fire. I've never seen them defend like that. Once President Krzyzweski had the whistles going his way and the crowd whipped into a particularly wild frenzy, the Irish crumbled. It was tough to watch. Duke's gameplan was clear: Jerian Grant will not be allowed to breathe.
Quinn Cook, Grant's HS teammate and good friend went in to lock down mode and did a fantastic job on Grant. If Jerian has a weakness, it can be when things start to go badly, he presses, and he pressed hard in that game. Mike Brey plays him 40/min a night and Jerian had done a ton of heavy lifting in the preceding games, including our victory over Duke in South Bend. Once he started pressing, it got away from him, and it just wasn't his day. The prime indicator was a 1-7 performance from the line for a guy averaging 76% on the year. It would be fair to excuse Grant for being physically and mentally drained on that trip in the middle of a grueling run of 7 games (5 away) in 20 days, and that's why Irish fans are thanking the ACC schedulers for these two separate week long byes late in the season. It is a shame the game at Cameron went that way because it is probably playing a greater role in the national media's perception of Jerian and the Irish than we'd like it to.
Purcell Pavilion's always been a bit of a house of horrors for Syracuse... why do you think that is?
The Orange aren't alone there. The Irish are 2-0 vs. Duke in ACC games in South Bend. The most obvious factor is that jumpshooting teams love to play in their own gym, and when ND can spread a team out by hitting some early 3's, ND's movement gets their opposition in trouble and they get easy baskets. The Irish use offensive efficiency to put pressure on their opponent. Second, the home crowd in those big game situations tends to give the Irish the spark and lift they need to get stops. They held Duke scoreless for 5:30 in the second half as they erased a 10 point deficit. Notre Dame is capable of defending, and the home crowd gives them a lift to execute on defense.
How can the Fighting Irish stop Rakeem Christmas in the paint? Or in particular, how can they stop him in the paint without needing to send three defenders on him?
Christmas is a tremendous talent and the type of interior presence that gives ND fits. At 6'10 and 242, Zach Auguste has the foot speed and size to match up individually, and Mike Brey has been crystal clear about being unwilling to trade perimeter 3's for stopping interior 2's. ND did bring some doubles against poor shooting teams like Georgia Tech, but with Trevor Cooney and Michael Gbinjie able to make teams pay from long range, I have a feeling Auguste, Bonzie Colson and Austin Torres will be asked to do the best they can 1-1. If Christmas gets Auguste in early foul trouble, that will increase Colson's role in stopping the Syracuse front line.
Where do you see this season ending? Could ND be a Final Four team, or will they fall short in the NCAA Tournament this year?
Is it OK to say "never" for this one? As an Irish fan, you look at this team and you see a 4-year rock of the program like Pat Connaughton alongside the incredible redemption story of Jerian Grant, and you really want to put this whole thing in a bottle for a while and hold on to it. Head Coach Mike Brey joked at a presser that he's considering retiring once those two exhaust their eligibility and move on to successful professional sports careers with their Notre Dame degrees.
One of our writers loves to point out that a single elimination post-season has so many variables outside a team's control. A bad match-up, catch somebody on a hot night, catch a ref with a quick whistle on your best guy, etc... A top 4 finish in the league and the byes it secures for the ACC tournament in Greensboro is a great first step. I'd like to see the Irish compete in an ACC semi-final. Anything beyond that is a combination of good fortune and being greedy. When it comes to the big dance, Irish fans haven't had our team to cheer for beyond the first weekend of the tournament since 2003, and there have been some good teams in those 12 years. This team has all the ingredients for a magical run in March. We want to be around the 2nd weekend of the tournament, and anything can happen from there.
Prediction time: What happens on Tuesday? An expected victory for Notre Dame, or can the Orange pull an upset?
Any Irish fan who tells you they're not concerned about this match-up is lying or delusional. In particular, ND has to be keenly aware that this is one of Christmas's last 4 opportunities to don the Orange uniform. We're going to get his best effort. Teams with legitimate down-low post men have given the Irish trouble. At the same time, ND survived Okafor's 22 point performance in South Bend and came out victorious.
This has all the makings of a classic clash-of-styles in an old-school BE rivalry. I think Irish shooting and movement can unlock the 2-3 zone. The question is whether or not Syracuse can put up 80+ points of their own. I think they can, but late game situations come down to guard play, and Notre Dame has one of the best in the country. I think he makes a winning play down the stretch and the Irish hold on for a tight 82-79 win.