What is Dispatches from Blogfrica? Pretty simple: I ask questions of an blogger for an opposing team; he answers. A truly revolutionary idea, no? Today: Joe at One Foot Down, SB Nation's excellent blog for all things Notre Dame.
1) What are the expectations for this Notre Dame team? The Fighting Irish have been making pretty regular trips to the NCAA Tournament of late -- are folks expecting another tournament trip this year?
Mike Brey has had the Irish in the tournament in 6 of the last 7 years, and 9 times since 2000, so the fan base has come to expect a bid. The bar has been raised significantly in the Brey era, and most fans expect this team to dance this spring. In our season preview on OFD, our basketball writers all predicted a bid, but with a pretty wide seed range. Honestly, shifting to the ACC makes this a difficult year to predict after delivering great consistency in the Big East.
2) Notre Dame is sitting at 5-1 as they prepare for the Iowa game, but all five wins have come against teams ranked in the 200s and 300s of the Ken Pomeroy rankings and your overall strength of schedule ranking looks like Iowa's before the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament (read: pretty unimpressive). The only game Notre Dame has played against a team with a moderately decent KenPom rating, Indiana State (currently #72), resulted in a loss. What happened in that game? Does ND's cupcake-heavy early schedule have you concerned about their preparation for this game?
With the grind of the BigEast, Brey has notoriously scheduled a pretty soft slate of non-conference games. To date, this season has followed that pattern. However, we're about to get in to the meat of our own Big Ten schedule with Iowa, Indiana and OSU all away from home, all between now and Christmas. Given ND's success in previous years, even after soft non-conference schedules, no one is pushing the panic button yet. Brey has used these early games to get a lot of different combinations on the floor and get a lot of minutes for his young guys. The Indiana State game was frustrating. The Irish came out extraordinarily flat and turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 16 times vs. the Sycamores. Zach Auguste was seeing his first action after a broken wrist, and ND isn't the only ACC team to drop a surprising early season contest this year. Obviously, the trip to Iowa City is going to be a much tougher test and more accurate indicator of what lies ahead for the Irish.
3) Notre Dame currently has four players averaging double figures in scoring, led by Jerian Grant (19.5 ppg), who's also leading the Irish with 5.5 assists per game. What should Iowa fans know about Grant? Who are the other main threats on offense for ND?
Grant is a pre-season All-ACC guard and the most talented and athletic player on the ND roster. When he's focused and knocking down his jumper (Good Jerian) he's capable of taking over games, like he did at the end of regulation in the 5OT battle with Louisville last year. Jerian can also show spells of disinterest or shooting ND out of a game (Bad Jerian). We're all hoping to see Good Jerian on Tuesday.
Look out for junior swingman Pat Connaughton. He's shooting 50% from behind the arc, and if ND goes small, he creates a very difficult matchup for the opposition's 4-man. Irish fans are also hoping for a break-out from freshman Demetrius Jackson. The McDonald's All-American has been content to defer to the veteran guards, but was inserted into the starting line-up for the first time on Sunday and responded well. Eric Atkins is the senior point guard that makes it all go with a 6:1 assist:turnover ratio.
4) It looks like the Irish primarily like to play zone on defense -- is that accurate? What are their strengths on defense? It looks like they're pretty good at forcing turnovers and preventing other teams from getting to the free throw line.
Not necessarily. Brey mixes up his defenses, and will let game conditions dictate different looks. The Irish play a solid help-side man as their base defense. Traditionally, they haven't extended out a lot of ball pressure, but with the addition of Jackson, I think you'll see more ball pressure from Notre Dame this season. We just didn't have the back court depth to get up on people in the past, so we played a pretty compact half-court man. Whether we're up pressuring or sitting back, you'll see ND switch every perimeter screen. With decent size and athleticism, ND routinely switches everything with confidence. They do a good job clogging passing lanes, and most of the turnovers they force are deflections, not picking pockets.
When the Irish do go to a zone, it is primarily a 2-3. You'll see this look when we go with one of our bigs and play a swing guy as a stretch 4. With guys like Connaughton and Austin Burgett playing the wings, the Irish have the length to recover to shooters. Notre Dame also showed a 3-2 (or 1-2-2) look vs. Cornell on Sunday. It was the first time I'd seen it in recent memory, and it didn't look great. With the struggles ND has had replacing Jack Cooley's 10+ rebounds per game, I don't expect to see any of the 3-2 vs. Iowa.
5) Finally, are you guys excited about moving to the ACC for basketball? How much will you miss your old Big East foes?
Notre Dame made the move it had to make. You have old guys like me wishing we could have worked it out with the Catholic 7 from the Big East. However, the ACC move makes sense for every Notre Dame sport and makes for a great fit for the University in general. The ACC is a great league to begin with. Notre Dame, Pitt, Syracuse and (soon) Louisville add some incredible depth and excitement. Notre Dame fans expect to be competitive and fight for a top-4 spot in the league right away. There's no doubt we'll miss playing teams like Marquette, Georgetown, DePaul, and Villanova, but who's going to argue with trips to the Dean Dome and Cameron Indoor Stadium? I think you'll see non-conference games with fellow Catholic institutions in future ND schedules. Mike Brey enters the ACC with a good base of success in the BigEast. Given his experience as a Duke assistant, we're confident he can build on that in the ACC.
6) OK, prediction time -- who ya got?
As you pointed out, Iowa certainly comes in more tested. I'm also concerned that Iowa's strength on the boards plays perfectly into ND's biggest weakness. ND's only way to make up for that deficiency is to be extremely efficient on offense. When the Irish are at their best, they don't turn the ball over, and shoot a very high percentage. They have to make up the rebounding margin in extra possessions by turning their opponent over and taking care of the ball themselves. Guys like Atkins and Grant have been thru the fire, I don't expect them to shrink from what will surely be a rockin' atmosphere Tuesday night. Our big men, however, make me nervous. I think the Irish get a bit of a painful lesson in managing their energy and concentration on the road and lose a close one to Iowa 88-82.
Thanks for being a good sport, Joe, although I still hope your team loses by 50 tonight. You can check out Joe and the rest of the OFD crew at One Foot Down. You can also follow Joe on Twitter at @JoeSchuOFD and OFD at @OneFootDown. The Iowa-Notre Dame game is in Iowa City on Tuesday, December 3, and is scheduled to start at 8:15 pm CT, with television coverage from ESPN2.