Despite an uphill battle on a poor shooting night at Louisville on Wednesday, No. 19 Virginia Tech (8-2, 2-1) showed grit and toughness, fighting until the end and falling just short, losing 73-71.
Mike Young & Co. now turn their attention to Notre Dame (3-6, 0-3 ACC), which sit at the bottom of the ACC. The Irish have struggled this season, though are better than their record indicates.
The average scoring margin in Notre Dame's six losses is just 6.67 points, and all three of the Irish's conference games have been within ten points. In its most recent game at North Carolina on Jan. 2, Notre Dame fell by one, 66-65.
Like most programs, Notre Dame has felt the uncertainty and effects of navigating a schedule during the pandemic. Mike Brey's squad has had two ACC games postponed this season (Syracuse on Dec. 22, Georgia Tech on Jan. 6) due to COVID-19 issues in opponents' programs.
Its trip to Cassell is the program's second of six consecutive road appearances. After visiting Blacksburg, the Irish will travel to Virginia, Boston College, Howard and Miami before hosting the Hokies on Jan. 27.
Series History & Last Meeting
Sunday is the 14th meeting between the Hokies and Irish, a series that Notre Dame leads 9-4. Brey's bunch won four of seven meetings with Tech under Buzz Williams and got the best of Young in his first season, knocking off the Hokies 64-56 in Purcell Pavilion last March.
That happened to be the last game of the regular season and Virginia Tech did not start well. The Hokies shot 6-28 (21.4%) in the first half and 3-17 (17.6%) from three. The Irish killed the Hokies on the boards and outrebounded Tech 26-15 in the first half.
There must've been a lid on the basket early because the Hokies went almost 12 minutes in the first half without a field goal.
Both teams shot better over the final 20 minutes — 50% (15-30) for VT from the field, 47% (7-15) from three, while Notre Dame shot 52% (14-27) from the floor — and the Hokies outscored the Irish 39-36 in the second period, but didn't have enough firepower to overtake the lead.
Jalen Cone and Landers Nolley finished a combined 3-20 while P.J. Horne (14 points) Hunter Cattoor (12) led Tech in scoring. The Hokies weren't plagued by turnovers (nine), rather they struggled to score and compete in the rebounding category (44-27, Notre Dame).
Notre Dame Names of Note
Nate Laszewski (pronounced La-SHEH-skee) has been on fire as of late. The 6'10" junior forward has scored in double figures in four straight games, including 28 points vs. UVa and 25 at UNC. He's the first Notre Dame player to have 20 points in back-to-back games since Bonzie Colson did so in February of 2017.
Some stats on the Jupiter, Fla. native:
- His .804 effective field goal percentage leads the NCAA this season
- He's shooting .658 in 2020-21, which is first in the ACC, ninth in D-I
- He can light it up from behind the arc too, shooting .590, which is first in the ACC, fourth in the NCAA
Bottom line: he's good. He's shot better than 50% in every game this season and has hit at least one three in every game. In last year's contest, he had seven points (3-4 FG) and three rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench.
Laszewski is also an animal on the boards, averaging 8.2 rebounds per game. He's a matchup nightmare for the Tech player that has to guard him since he can stretch defenses and play both inside and out. It'll be interesting to see how Young sets up his defense to defend him and if they'll change anything specifically for him.
By my count, the only other time Virginia Tech has faced a team with a star player with a potential professional future this season was back in November against Villanova and Collin Gillespie. The talented senior was fantastic against the Hokies, scoring a season-high 25 points on 8-14 shooting.
Laszewski isn't exactly the NBA prospect Gillespie is, though he's starting to draw more attention. Tech needs to make sure they know where he is on the floor at all times.
Prentiss Hubb is the floor general for the Irish. The 6'3'' point guard averages 14.8 points and 4.5 assists per game. The junior from Upper Marlboro, Md. has 70 career starts and rarely exits the floor, averaging 38 minutes per game.
In his 74 career appearances in the blue and gold, Hubb has averaged 2.4 turnovers per game. He's a fantastic ball handler and is one of the main reasons why the Irish are one of the better teams in the nation in turnovers per game. Hubb averages only three turnovers per game in 2020-21 and has a 1.5 assist to turnover ratio.
As one would expect, Wabissa Bede will guard Hubb. One of Tech's best defenders, he should be able to match him on both ends of the floor and limit some of his scoring.
Something to keep an eye out for: where Hubb plays almost every minute for the Irish, Bede only averages 26 minutes per game. Without Cartier Diarra, the backup point guard responsibility has mostly fallen to Hunter Cattoor. The always energetic sophomore is a talented defender but not the most experienced ball handler.
The inexperience didn't hurt Tech against Louisville, where Cattoor had one assist and one turnover, but might against a veteran guard in Hubb that averages one steal per game. Cattoor is usually very reliable on the defensive end — he leads the Hokies in charges taken this season with 10 — but might be susceptible to turnovers offensively against the Irish.
Dane Goodwin has been inconsistent as of late for Notre Dame, scoring just five points against Virginia and six against North Carolina.
The 6'6" junior guard is an efficient veteran though, particularly from long range. He's connected at a higher rate from behind the arc in 2020-21 as a starter, making 42% of his shots after hitting 38% in 2019-20. The Upper Arlington, Ohio native is Notre Dame's third leading scorer, averaging 13.8 points per game, and is second on the team in rebounding, averaging 5.4 boards per game.
Goodwin is very similar to Louisville's Jae'Lyn Withers, who Mike Young called "the wildcard" in Wednesday's game against the Cardinals. He doesn't draw the attention that the two other stars — for UofL, Carlik Jones and David Johnson; for Notre Dame, Laszewski and Hubb — draw.
Against Louisville, the Hokies chose to focus more on Jones and Johnson, which meant Withers had the opportunity to make the Hokies pay. He did, with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
If Tech plays Notre Dame similarly and focuses more on Hubb and Laszewski, Goodwin has the chance for an impactful performance.
Style of Play and Impact on Virginia Tech
While Virginia Tech is fairly balanced in terms of efficiency on both sides of the court, Notre Dame is great in some areas and poor in others.
Per KenPom.com, the Irish are a solid offensive team, ranked 27th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, 46th in effective field goal percentage and 54th in turnover percentage. Notre Dame also ranks 20th in the NCAA in three-point percentage (38.9%) and 12th in free throw percentage (79.3%).
In addition to those three-point statistics, the Irish see 40.1% of their points come from behind the arc, a percentage that ranks 18th in D-1 in terms of point distribution.
What those stats mean: Notre Dame is an efficient shooting team and scores most of its points from deep, while not turning the ball over much.
Compare that against Virginia Tech's defensive ratings. The Hokies are No. 52 in adjusted defensive efficiency, No. 147 in effective field goal percentage and No. 209 in turnover percentage. Tech is No. 223 in three-point percentage (34.6%) and No. 70 in free throw percentage (66.5%).
The Hokies are also No. 107 in three-point distribution defensively, with 33.2% of all points allowed from downtown.
If the Hokies can defend the three-headed monster of Laszewski, Hubb and Goodwin and run the Irish off the three-point line, one of Notre Dame's biggest strengths, Tech should be fine defensively.
It's a different story on the defensive end for Notre Dame. The Irish don't force many turnovers — they rank near the bottom in the country with a 12.1% turnover percentage (344 of 357), which is calculated by the amount of turnovers divided by the number of possessions. Meanwhile, the Hokies turn the ball over on 18.2% of their possessions (No. 106), another metric that Tech is above average in.
Where the Irish excel is in terms of fouling. Notre Dame leads the country in defensive free throw rate, a statistic calculated by the number of free throw attempts divided by field goal attempts, which shows a team's ability to get to the free throw line. The Irish have a rate of 18.2%, while Tech is one of the better teams in the NCAA in that category, getting to the line at a rate of 38.3 (No. 59).
One of the biggest keys for Mike Young and Virginia Tech in 2020-21 was getting to the free throw line. Last season, the Hokies were No. 347 out of 353 programs with a rate of 22.9%.
If Notre Dame can stay out of foul trouble and keep the Hokies away from the charity stripe, a place where Tech scores 20% of its points, the Irish will have success. If the Hokies want to bounce back from the Louisville loss, they have to get to the foul line.
The Irish fall below average in almost every defensive statistic outside free throw rate. On the flip side, Tech is above average, ranking in the top 100 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency (No. 31), effective field goal percentage (No. 64), three-point percentage (No. 87) and two-point percentage (No. 83). The Hokies also are average in turning the ball over (No. 106).
Like most ACC games, expect a dogfight. The Irish are a big, stubborn club, but the Hokies are better. Virginia Tech is playing on its home floor, where they boast a 6-1 record this season, and have won four in a row. If Tech executes the game plan and plays to its strengths, it should come out on top in Cassell against the Irish.