The Syracuse Orange (11-8, 3-3) will travel to South Bend on Saturday to take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (16-3, 5-1). Notre Dame has surged in the early portion of its ACC schedule, going 5-0 before falling to Florida State on Wednesday. Mike Brey’s club is still (tied) first in the conference, so needless to say a win on the road against the top team in the conference would be momenous for Syracuse.
We caught up Patrick Sullivan over at onefootdown.com to preview the matchup. Without further ado, let’s delve into the dialogue.
You guys have started off 4-1 in the ACC. Was that expected?
This hot start was absolutely not expected.
First of all, ND lost its two best players and leading scorers from last season's Elite 8 squad in Demetrius Jackson and Zach Auguste. So, they lost an NBA-caliber point guard and their only talented, or even competent, big man over 6'6". Most people looked at the roster and figured ND might compete for an NCAA Tournament bid but could end up on the bubble or NIT-bound.
The number of players who have made huge leaps in their games to form one of Mike Brey's best teams (at least, so far...time will tell if they continue at this pace in the hellhole that is ACC conference play) is incredible, and the Notre Dame basketball program continues to delight and surprise its supporters just as much as the football program disappoints them.
TNIAAM: What is it about this team's ability to make plays late in games?
Despite the number of young or unheralded players on the roster, this team has plenty of players with significant experience in big games. Senior Steve Vasturia started on back-to-back Elite 8 teams, Bonzie Colson was a 6th man on one and a starter and emotional leader on another, VJ Beachem was ND's best scorer in the 2016 tourney, Matt Farrell started every tournament game for the Irish last year, and players like Rex Pflueger even have already been in high-pressure situations, like when he had the game-winning tip-in against Stephen F. Austin to send ND to the Sweet 16 last year.
Mike Brey has this mysterious ability to get the absolute most out of players other schools wouldn't touch, and he teaches them how to take care of the ball, share the ball, and relish big moments instead of fear them. Just watch 6'5" Bonzie Colson or little Matt Farrell take the ball to the hoop against much bigger opponents. This team isn't scared, and they've been there before. And it's been evident late in games.
TNIAAM: How improved is Matt Farrell?
Let's contrast his stats from last season with his stats from this season:
2015-2016: 13.4 minutes, 2.6 pts, 1.6 asts, 0.8 rebs, 0.2 stls, 37% FG, 32% 3FG
2016-2017: 32.9 minutes, 14.2 pts, 5.5 asts, 2.2 rebs, 1.3 stls, 45% FG, 42% 3FG
If you'll notice, the answer is a helluva lot. Farrell had been written off by even the most optimistic fans as a placeholder until freshman TJ Gibbs got up to speed and took the reins at point guard. Instead, Farrell's been sensational, putting on a display of quickness, a fearless ability to drive the ball and finish at the rim, an uncanny ability to make tough passes, a very good 3-point jumper, ice water in his veins at the free throw line, and the testicular fortitude to take and make big-time shots at the end of games.
He's been a revelation and is the undeniable heart and soul of this team, along with Steve Vasturia.
TNIAAM: Is Steve Vasturia the official go-to-guy?
Yes, he is. I talked about Farrell's clutch ability, and Bonzie Colson can definitely be counted on when the Irish need an important bucket, but those two are Options 2 and 3 after Steve Vasturia.
Mike Brey has had few players as fundamentally sound as Vasturia is on both ends of the floor. He's constantly tasked with guarding the opponent's best wing player, he handles and passes the ball well, has a dynamite three-point shot (he's hitting at a 46% clip this season), and is unflappable in his drives to the hoop, where he is often clever enough to find a way to finish despite defenders who can definitely out-jump him.
He never lets the heat of the moment get to him, and stays cool and collected as the clock ticks down. He's hit multiple big-time shots late in games already against Pittsburgh, Louisville, and Miami, and is absolutely the guy I most want taking the final shot for ND this season.
TNIAAM: How can Notre Dame be beaten at home?
I'm not gonna lie, beating ND at Purcell Pavilion is a very difficult task for any team. Since the beginning of the 2014-2015 season, the Irish are 42-4 at home.
However, with that being said, the best way to beat a Mike Brey team is to pressure the ball constantly with long, athletic defenders. Forcing turnovers will absolutely disrupt the well-oiled Notre Dame offensive machine, and will create opportunities for Syracuse to control the tempo of the game. If the Orange can do that and knock down some shots, they'll have a shot to take down the Irish at home.
TNIAAM: Notre Dame wins if...
They keep the turnover number under 12 against Syracuse's zone defense, and also own the defensive glass. The Irish will otherwise get their shots and likely hit a strong percentage of them. Furthermore, they will get to the line (where they shoot 82% as a team) and pick up key defensive stops down the stretch, so if they take care of the ball and don't give Syracuse multiple scoring chances each possession, I think the Irish win this one.
TNIAAM: Syracuse wins if...
Their athleticism and defensive pressure force turnovers and create easy buckets for themselves, and if they hit the offensive glass hard and take advantage of the height advantage they'll have over the Irish.
TNIAAM: Ultimate prediction time. Who wins this game?
I'm taking Notre Dame in a close game that ends up as a ~10-point victory due to fouling and free throws. Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell will lead the way for the Irish, with Beachem and Vasturia chipping in some key buckets in the second half. I say Notre Dame 81, Syracuse 71
Be sure to head over to onefootdown.com to see our preview, amongst other material. You can also give Pat a follow on twitter @Psully226 to get a glimpse of his ever so elegant Hawaiian t-shirt in his avi.
What do you think, Orange nation? Can Syracuse rebound on the road? More doom and gloom? Opine in the comment section below.