We previewed tonight's Wake Forest vs. Notre Dame game by chatting with Joe Schueller (@JoeSchuOFD) of One Foot Down. His answers below are outstanding, and he routinely provides excellent basketball analysis on One Foot Down. If you want to read my answers to his questions, you can find them here.
Notre Dame is currently 22-4 overall, 10-3 in the ACC, and 18th in Ken Pom. What type of seed do you expect the Irish to get in the NCAA Tournament and what do you think this team's ceiling is?
The Irish have been surprisingly good. Last year, a lot of ND fans entered the ACC with cautious optimism, and obviously that fell flat in a disastrous first season. Coach Mike Brey got the obvious benefit of Jerian Grant's return from academic separation with the University, but Brey also did a tremendous job using ND's cycle to get the team overseas this summer. That trip to Italy, along with Notre Dame's Charmin-soft non-conference schedule let this group build some early confidence and pick up some big wins.
In October, most Irish fans would have happily settled for finishing in the top half of the ACC and landing any NCAA Tournament bid. The 22-4 record at this point has, for better or worse, moved a lot of those goalposts. In the short term, while the Irish have a shot at the ACC regular season title, I think most fans are targeting a top-4 finish and the double bye in Greensboro as the regular season sweet spot for this team. NCAA Tournament seeding will likely be determined by two things: First, the Irish have to finish the ACC regular season at 4-1 or better over their last 5. Anything worse than that, and I think they're looking at sitting on the 5 or even 6 line in the brackets. Second, they have to win a game or two in Greensboro. Getting to the ACC final could put the Irish on a 2 or 3 line. Even if the Irish can get thru their last 5 at 4-1, if they get their doors blown off in a quarterfinal, their non conference SoS will bite them in the butt and they'll struggle to do better than a 4.
Beyond that, Notre Dame hasn't made the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament since 2003, including a 2nd round exit while a 2 seed in 2011. Every Irish fan is hoping this team has the balance and the back court to get to the second weekend and finally make some noise in the big dance.
What do you believe is Notre Dame's biggest strength?
Unquestionably, it is their offense. The Irish have hovered in the top 2-3 rated offenses in Ken Pomeroy's rankings all year long. Guard play is so critical, and ND has one of the best back courts in the country with Demetrius Jackson and Jerian Grant. Grant is a PoY candidate on every watch list. Despite a rough outing in Durham, Grant is regularly putting up amazing offensive numbers and highlight reel plays. He's the first potential lottery pick Notre Dame has had in ages and the center of the Irish attack. A few weeks back, I wrote about the similarities in Grant's game and numbers with James Harden during his time at ASU and in his current role with the Rockets.
What is Notre Dame's biggest weakness?
Ask any Irish fan this question, and you'll get three responses in this order: Defense, rebounding, and depth. While the Irish defense has improved light years beyond where they were a year ago, Notre Dame still sits 152nd nationally in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency and 12th in the ACC in raw defensive efficiency. While their overall defense has been suspect, they've shown glimmers of locking people down. At home, down 10 against Duke, the Irish held the Blue Devils scoreless for5:30 while they erased Duke's lead. Down big in Raleigh to NC State, the Irish held the Wolfpack to 29 second half points. Coach Mike Brey is never going to be a Tony Bennett-like defensive guru, but he's made good in-game adjustments to deal with front-court scorers. He builds his teams around solid, free-flowing offense and gets what he can out of his guys defensively.
Rebounding is also an issue, particularly clearing the defensive glass to end a defensive possession. 6'5" Pat Connaughton is Notre Dame's best rebounder, and he needs some help. You'll never confuse Notre Dame for a team like UNC or MSU that gobble up rebounds. They just need to keep it close in that part of the game and not let opponents kill them on the glass. ND's win in Chapel Hill is a prime example of that strategy.
Finally, Mike Brey has a notoriously short bench. Particularly this time of year, Irish fans are on high alert for signs of fatigue after their 2 best players have played over 85% of the minutes on the season. If you throw out the Durham blow-out (let's all just forget that please), Grant has averaged over 40 minutes/game in 5 of his last 6 ACC contests. This year, the ACC schedule makers did the Irish a huge favor in front-loading our schedule. Notre Dame comes in to Tuesday night's game with Wake off of a full week of rest, and ND gets another full week between hosting Syracuse and traveling to Louisville. This is huge, because Brey won't go more than 7 deep this time of year unless injuries or foul trouble dictate he get an 8th guy in the game.
Which player on Wake Forest will give Notre Dame the most problems?
Without hesitation or doubt, it is Devin Thomas. The dude absolutely destroyed ND twice last year. Despite concerns for my emotional well-being, I went back and looked at the numbers. Thomas was 15-20 from the field and scored 40 points against the Irish in the 2 contests last year, including a 10-11 performance in the regular season matchup in Winston Salem. Ouch. Notre Dame fans will be watching closely to monitor junior big man Zach Auguste's energy level and engagement. He's the best size and athleticism matchup Notre Dame has for Thomas, but if he's looking disinterested on the defensive end or gets himself in foul trouble, the task of slowing him down will fall on true freshman Bonzie Colson or red-shirt sophomore Austin Torres.
Really, the whole front court could be an issue. Brey hasn't played 2 bigs together all season. Pat Connaughton has played a stretch 4 role at an athletic 6'5" 218 lbs. I don't think he ends up drawing Thomas on the blocks when Auguste is such a better matchup, but then does Pat pick up Mitoglou and give up six inches, or does Brey have to deploy Colson and Auguste together for the first time this year? Unlike some other ACC teams, Wake will actually run, so going to our small lineup won't necessarily force Manning to go small and pull one of those bigs off the floor. The first thing I'll be watching for is how we deal with the immediate threat of Thomas; then what that does secondarily to how we mach up with the big, bombing Greek
Mike Brey talked this week about how his team spent the week off and emphasized the three R's: rest, recruiting and reps. A lot of Irish fans saw some tired legs vs. Pitt, Duke and BC. We were all relieved to escape Clemson with a win by a team that seemed to be running on fumes. I think these guys are thrilled to be back home working on their spread offensive sets and PnR game, and to get off their feet for a week. Fresh legs lead to better shooting, and I think the Irish will have their offense clicking Tuesday night. While I feel like the Irish have an advantage in the back court match ups, Wake's front court holds a distinct advantage and Thomas seems to love playing against ND. The Deacs' front court keeps it close, but in a close game, superior guard play on our own floor is what pulls it out. Jerian Grant is the best player on the court, and is able to make winning plays down the stretch in a close one: 80-84, Irish win their first ACC game over Wake Forest at home.