Georgetown faces a critical late-season test tonight when it faces a surprising Notre Dame squad on ESPN. NCAA tournament seeding, Big East standings, and Irish coach Mike Brey's 47th Big East Coach of the Year award all may lie in the balance. For Jason Clark and Henry Sims, it's Senior Night, the last time as Hoyas that they take the Verizon Center floor, where they have been nearly perfect this season. So there will be no shortage of motivation for two teams that have far exceeded somewhat modest preseason expectations. Let's get you ready for tonight's showdown.
It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. After losing three starters from last season's second-place squad, at least a mild dip could have been expected from the Irish this year. A middling start, compounded by a season-ending injury to leading scorer Tim Abromaitis, lowered most people's estimation further. But Notre Dame has made somewhat of a habit of exceeding expectations under Mike Brey and, after a respectable 3-3 Big East start, the leprechauns really caught fire with a court-storming home upset of then-No. 1 Syracuse. Eight more straight wins followed, including over Marquette and at Seton Hall, West Virginia, and Connecticut. While the Irish lost at St. John's on Saturday, their remarkable run has left them as an NCAA tournament lock and a likely top-tier finisher in the Big East.
Irish to Know. Notre Dame revolves around two guards and a post, with the wings largely serving as glue guys. The back-court is manned by a pair of sophomore guards, Eric Atkins (12.7 ppg, 4.0 apg, 1.3 stl pg) and Jerian Grant (12.7 ppg, 4.9 apg, 1.2 stl pg): both provide ball-handling, scoring, and speed. Inside, junior big man Jack Cooley (12.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg, 1.6 blk pg) has been renting Luke Harangody's haircut and, more recently, his game. Together, this trio has roughly quadrupled its production from last year, when Grant didn't play at all and Atkins and Cooley were back-ups. Flanking them is a trio of complementary wings: fifth-year senior Scott Martin (9.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg); freshman Pat Connaughton (7.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and sophomore Alex Dragicevich (7 ppg).
When Notre Dame Has the Ball.
- Irish's strength: Three-point shooting. Four of every ten Irish shots come from beyond the arc. Each player mentioned above, save Cooley, shots threes with at least that frequency, with Connaughton and Dragicevich each taking more than half of their shots from three. Notre Dame isn't terribly accurate from deep, making just under 32 percent of its three-point attempts. But the Irish don't beat themselves, ranking in the top 10 nationally in turnover percentage, and wear out opponents with their "burn" offense, designed to do exactly that to the clock while patiently rotating the ball to an open shooter. As a result, Notre Dame's offense becomes a maddeningly effective and balanced 34.5-second exercise resulting in a fairly open three-pointer. The Hoyas allow barely 29 percent from deep, but will need to close out better Monday night than they did against Seton Hall.
- Irish to watch: Jack Cooley. An odd choice, given the previous bullet and that each of the other five players mentioned above has attempted 100 three-pointers, while Cooley has hoisted zero. But the junior big man has been on a tear recently, averaging 19 points and 12.3 rebounds over the past six games while shooting a mind-bending 74 percent from the field. The Hoyas' defensive problems this year have tended to be in stopping perimeter players more than posts, but Sims will have to lock down the energetic Cooley.
- Hoyas' strength: defensive rebounding. Except for Cooley, who hauls in four-plus offensive rebounds per game, the Irish barely look at the offensive glass, ranking 14th in the league in gathering their own misses. Georgetown leads the Big East by grabbing nearly 70 percent of opposing misses. As long as the Irish possessions can be, the Hoyas will need to limit them to just one try per possession, mostly by checking Cooley.
- Hoya to watch: [insert guard here]. Georgetown has struggled with quick guards throughout the season. And with Markel Starks benched against Villanova, the Hoya guard rotation shifted a bit, with Jabril Trawick playing a capable 21 minutes. When the Hoyas go man, Jason Clark can be counted on to provide stout defense against Atkins (if Trawick or Greg Whittington is flanking him) or Grant (Starks). But the other guard will need to stop penetration and close out on perimeter shots.
- Looming question: comfortable pace? Notre Dame's pace, the slowest in the conference, causes problems for up-and-down teams. While the Hoyas, who are just two spots above the Irish in pace, would appear to be well-suited to adjust to stall ball, slower teams haven't really done better against the Irish so far: South Florida, West Virginia, and Pittsburgh, which rank 15th, 13th, and 12th in pace, all lost to Notre Dame (West Virginia twice) while the teams that beat the Irish rank 4th (St. John's), 7th (Rutgers), 10th (Connecticut) and 11th (Cincinnati).
When Georgetown Has the Ball.
- Irish's strength: three-point defense. Notre Dame is much improved defensively over previous years, and is particularly adept at closing out on the perimeter, where opponents make barely one-quarter of their three-point attempts, the best mark in the conference. In short, the Hoyas can't fall in love with their outside shot Monday night.
- Hoyas' strength: working the ball inside. The Irish don't force many miscues, ranking well below average in steals, forced turnovers, and blocks, even when adjusted for their slow pace. They also have a very short rotation, with Cooley being the only big man who sees more than 10 minutes of action. Patience, and working the ball inside, should open up opportunities against the Irish defense, and perhaps foul trouble.
- Hoya to watch: Henry Sims. The senior big man will need to make Cooley work inside, getting deep post position and drawing fouls. By creating offense inside, Sims can better free his teammates for the occasional outside look.
- Looming question: free throws? Georgetown has taken at least 23 foul shots in its past four wins, but averaged only 15.5 in losses to Syracuse and Seton Hall. While the story of each game was more complicated than that, the Hoyas will need to get to the line against an Irish defense that is foul-averse. They'll also need to make those foul shots, which has been an issue of late.
Prediction. After rattling off five straight against the Irish earlier in the JTIII era, Georgetown has been a bit dry of late, losing to Notre Dame each of the past three years. Barring a re-match in the Big East Tournament, tonight will be the last opportunity for Sims and Clark to beat the Irish. Added to the much more immediate stakes mentioned above, that should bring out a motivated Hoya bunch. Expect a slow, low-scoring affair in which the Hoyas need critical defensive stops to pull out the win. Georgetown 56, Notre Dame 52.