The Syracuse Orange (12-3, 1-1) return home to host the Bonzie Colson-less Notre Dame Fighting Irish (12-3, 2-0) at the Carrier Dome this Saturday. Syracuse got annihilated last season in South Bend — currently the Irish are looking to weather the storm after losing its star player.
To preview the game we caught up with our old friend Pat over at One Foot Down. See Q&A below.
TNIAAM: First, what has Notre Dame done well and not so well this season?
OFD: The Irish have done a good job with what they usually do a good job with: Taking care of the ball and being efficient: 3rd in the country with just 9.5 turnovers per game, 10th with assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.56, 13th in Ken Pom adjusted offensive efficiency rating Shooting: 28th in the country at 49.2%, 30th in the country in 3-point percentage at 40.1% Free Throws: 23rd in the country at 76.8% Playing smart defense: 4th in the country in fewest fouls committed (13.1 per game).
They’ve also been surprisingly okay at defense. Not exceptional or anything, mind you, but solid: 39th in scoring defense, allowing 65.1 ppg 46th in field goal percentage defense, allowing 39.9% shooting 47th in Ken Pom adjusted defensive efficiency rating The areas they’ve been not great in are also not shocking: Rebounding: 169th in total rebounds per game, 141st in rebounding margin, 289th in offensive rebounds per game Forcing turnovers: 257th in the country in turnovers forced per game (just 12.7) Defending perimeter shooting: 108th in the country in 3-point field goal defense, allowing opponents to make 33% from deep Except one area -- sharing the ball.
The Irish under Mike Brey have always been masters of ball movement and racking up assists. This year has been a different story: 129th in the country in assists per game (tied with Savannah State at 14.8 apg) This is likely because the team has been so reliant on BONZIE COLSON and Matt Farrell to make plays one-on-one. I expect the assist numbers will soar up with BONZIE out and with the team having to get everyone involved much more.
TNIAAM: What happened in the identical 80-77 losses to Ball State and Indiana?
OFD: Those two games may have had identical scores, but were much different ball games. The loss to Ball State was a terribly-played game by the Irish, as they got out-hustled and out-played by the Cardinals, who somehow managed to out-rebound ND 40-26, including 13 offensive rebounds. Notre Dame played from behind or with a slight lead that entire game, and did not deserve to win it. Against Indiana, the Irish took various commanding, double-digit leads throughout the game, including runs of 17-3, 13-1, 8-1, and 8-2. They even led by 8 with just 2 minutes left in regulation, and by 3 with 20 seconds left in overtime (and managed to lose, in overtime).
The team just completely choked down the stretch, allowing IU’s Juwan Morgan to score at-will and Zach McRoberts to beat them to every loose rebound, even on IU missed free throws that should have saved the game for ND. Both games featured getting out-hustled for rebounds down the stretch (won’t be the last time this season, especially with COLSON now out), but otherwise they were very different games in that ND should never have lost the IU game, while Ball State legitimately outplayed the Irish for 40 minutes, winning on a fantastic buzzer beater three.
TNIAAM: Notre Dame doesn’t turn the ball over and doesn’t foul much. Why and how have you guys been so disciplined?
OFD: That’s just the system that Mike Brey has installed at ND over the past almost 20 years. He emphasizes taking care of the ball and a free-flowing, efficient offense that requires guys don’t turn it over much. Defensively, the lack of fouls has always been partially because the Irish aren’t very good or aggressive on defense, but it also is again due to the high-IQ guys Brey coaches up on being efficient and picking your spots.
TNIAAM: How much has experience -- get old and stay old -- been a factor this season?
OFD: Having three senior starters (COLSON, Farrell, Martinas Geben) and a junior starter who has been to an Elite Eight (Rex Pflueger) has been huge in terms of having the leadership and maturity in most of the best players on the team, allowing them to lead by example and teach younger guys how to play. What will be interesting, though, is with COLSON out for maybe the rest of the year and Farrell out for the time being, the young guys are about to be forced to play with these older guys much more and quickly grow up.
Brey has always relied on having small-to-medium-sized rotations of mostly upperclassmen, but now he will be forced to play a lot of guys in a lot of different configurations. It’s about to be very intriguing to see how that works out in Brey’s tried and true system.
TNIAAM: Besides everything, what does Notre Dame lose with Bonzie out?
OFD: It’s easiest to say scoring, because COLSON leads the team in scoring and is one of the only guys who has proven he can always create his own shot, and from anywhere on the floor. He’s a very good outside shooter and yet he’s at his best in the paint, ducking and weaving and spinning around defenders for buckets with those long arms of his. Besides the scoring, though, the rebounding will be potentially an even more critical loss.
On a team that was bad at rebounding with him out there averaging 10 boards per game, it’s downright scary to think about how the Irish will attempt to go toe-to-toe with bigger teams like Duke, UNC, etc. without BONZIE out there snaring rebounds over bigger opponents. The young big men on the team are about to get thrown to the wolves, and I’m not sure they’re ready.
TNIAAM: Any chance Notre Dame misses the tournament without him for these next eight weeks?
OFD: Absolutely. The team was struggling with him there, and already has two bad losses in non-conference play to Ball State and IU. The ACC gauntlet is super formidable, and I don’t think the Irish can secure a bid with anything less than a .500 record in conference play. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but with your leading scorer and rebounder and All-American out, and your second-best player and primary ball handler now out for at least a few precious games, the Irish might not be able to get to that win total this season.
There’s always the possibility that COLSON is healthy and ready for the ACC Tournament, but he will be rusty at best and potentially unable to carry ND to another ACC title. I’d say it’s more likely than not that ND misses the tourney this year, but games last night give me hope they might compete on the bubble and maybe be in a position for COLSON to come back and push them into the tourney.
TNIAAM: What can we expect to see from Notre Dame against Syracuse?
OFD: You can expect an 8-man rotation led by TJ Gibbs at the point. With COLSON and Farrell out, he’s the team’s best player and go-to scorer, and his speed, length, and tenacity will be a handful for Syracuse’s guards. Freshman wing DJ Harvey will start again and be a tough guy to stop due to his length, athleticism, and mid-range game, although he has had games where he’s disappeared, so we will see what the Carrier Dome and that Orange zone have in store for him.
Pflueger and Geben will be their normal selves, adding experience, defense, some rebounding, and hopefully a little scoring. And then the rest of the team (Fs John Mooney and Elijah Burns and Austin Torres, G Nikola Djogo) will try to give some good hustle minutes and get a couple buckets where they can. Overall, this is an Irish team missing almost 50% of its usual scoring production, almost 33% of its rebounds, and its primary ball-handler/playmaker/shot taker as the clock winds down. Syracuse should be able to handle them at home.
TNIAAM: Lastly, who wins and why?
OFD: Syracuse. The Irish rode an emotional night on Wednesday to get Mike Brey the win to become the winningest Notre Dame coach of all-time, and so Saturday will likely involve the team falling back to earth against a long, athletic, excellent rebounding team playing at home. I think Syracuse wins this one something like 77-63, but hope the Irish can keep the momentum going and make it much closer than that.
Thanks, Pat. Head on over to onefootdown.com for our preview as well.
What do you think, Orange Nation? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.