By Jeff White (email@example.com)
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Snow covered the ground outside the Joyce Center, temperatures struggled to reach the teens, and a biting wind chilled all who ventured outdoors in this college town Friday afternoon.
Inside Notre Dame’s basketball arena, third-ranked Virginia practiced in more comfortable conditions. But there was nothing leisurely about the Cavaliers’ session. Time and again, UVa’s coaching staff reminded the players of the challenge they’ll face Saturday in what promises to be a hostile environment for the visitors.
At 6 p.m., third-ranked Virginia (14-0 overall, 2-0 ACC) meets 13th-ranked Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0) in a much-anticipated showdown that ESPN2 will televise.
“They’re hungry,” associate head coach Ritchie McKay yelled, referring to the Fighting Irish. “They’re hungry to shoot the 3.”
“One movement, guards,” assistant coach Ron Sanchez commanded. “You gotta be in the gap and close out.”
After a sequence in which UVa’s starters stymied the scout-team offense, head coach Tony Bennett asked his team if it was committed to working that hard on defense all game Saturday night.
“That’s the question,” Bennett said. “You gotta come up with the answer.”
In 2013-14, the Irish’s first season in the ACC, they played UVa twice. The Wahoos swept the series, winning 68-53 at the Joyce Center on Jan. 28 and 70-49 at John Paul Jones Arena on Feb. 22.
“They owned us,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey told reporters on a Thursday teleconference. “We had no answers for Virginia. It was like a JV versus a varsity … It’s the one team in the league we weren’t competitive with.”
In both of those games, though, Notre Dame was without All-ACC candidate Jerian Grant. A guard from DeMatha Catholic High in Maryland, Grant was suspended from Notre Dame for academic reasons after the first semester in 2013-14.
Grant, a 6-5 senior, was re-admitted to school for 2014-15, and he’s averaging 17.3 points and 6.3 assists this season, both team highs.
“All the difference in the world,” McKay said of Grant’s impact. “What people undervalue with him is, he’s a point guard. He’s a creator for the rest of their offense. So guys are getting looks that they didn’t get last year, because Jerian Grant puts so much pressure on your defense.”
In an article on Notre Dame’s athletics website, und.com, Notre Dame star Pat Connaughton discussed Grant’s importance to the team.
“It’s the ability to have him at the end of games, where we have a closer we didn’t have last year,” Connaughton said. “He makes the right play every time. It’s not necessarily something he has to do by himself. He has a whole team around him, and he knows that. He knows we’re here for him, and we know he’s here for us. That should differentiate this year from last year.”
The Irish lead the nation in field-goal percentage (54.8) and rank third in scoring (85.0 ppg).
“They score a lot, and they score easily,” UVa big man Anthony Gill said after practice Friday.
Notre Dame does so with an unconventional lineup. Only one Irish starter stands taller than 6-5 – 6-10 junior Zach Auguste (14.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg). But Connaughton, a 6-5, 218-pound senior, plays bigger than his listed height and averages a team-best 8.3 rebounds.
Connaughton is also an exceptional right-handed pitcher whom the Baltimore Orioles picked in the fourth round of last year’s Major League Baseball draft.
In practice Friday, Bennett repeatedly mentioned Connaughton to his players.
“It was 353 times, actually,” McKay said, smiling.
The Cavaliers rank second nationally in scoring defense (50.8 ppg), and their concern over Connaughton is understandable. On a team that has five players who have made at least 20 treys apiece this season, he’s first with 44.
“He’s a tough matchup,” McKay said. “The thing that you appreciate when you watch film of Notre Dame is how well they play together as a team. And then you start looking at individual assessments, and Connaughton is not only a really, really efficient shooter, but he understands how to play.
“He sees seams and openings like he plays the point-guard position, moves well without the ball, and he is a phenomenal defensive rebounder. He gives them so much versatility, because he plays like a guard and guards the 4-man.”
Among the Cavaliers likely to cover Connaughton is Gill, a 6-8 junior who typically operates around the basket.
“I’ll basically be guarding a guard out there,” Gill said. “Connaughton, everyone knows who he is. He’s a really talented player and creates a lot of mismatches, so I just gotta be ready to guard.”
The Irish have won five straight home games against teams ranked in The Associated Press’ top 10, most recently versus Duke last January.
“I think they’ll be really hungry and ready to stomp on us,” Gill said. “They’re going to be ready to come out in their home gym and prove they can beat us. They’re a high-powered offensive team, and we’re a high-powered defensive team, and we just gotta go out and be ready.”
Brey said: “It’s a great matchup. There’s a great buzz about it, and rightfully so. For us, we knew Virginia was going to be good. I’m really thrilled that we’re in a position to make this a big game.”
His players, Brey said, “certainly remember the thumpings we took twice last year,” and McKay knows the Irish want to avenge those losses.
“But you know us,” McKay said. “We just focus on the next day, the next game. Our mindset is that this will be a really difficult venue against a quality opponent, and we’re going to have to improve on the way we’ve defended in the last two weeks, and also be more efficient offensively.
“That’ll be more our focus. What happened last year, that’s out of our thoughts and out of our control. But this will be an electric environment on Saturday, and a win here would be in my mind one of our best of the season, if not the best, because of all that’s surrounding the game.”