No rest for the road weary as your Georgetown Hoyas return to action less than 48 hours after a disappointing road loss at South Florida. Monday will find the Hoyas in northern Indiana squaring off against the not-at-all-imaginary Notre Dame Fighting Irish. Can Georgetown pull off an upset in a tough road venue against a seasoned Irish bunch? Let's get to it.
It's Been So Long Since Last We Met. Notre Dame rolled into D.C. last season just one game removed from an eight-game winning streak, ensuring Mike Brey his 472nd Big East Coach of the Year award. The Irish limped out after being on the business end of a nationally televised 58-41 stifling by your Hoyas. After losing to Louisville in the Big East Tournament, the Irish lost in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament to Xavier, their third loss in their last four games in the dance.
Despite the disappointing finish to last year, this year held the promise of success in South Bend. The Irish returned their entire starting rotation and added reinforcements to give depth to a rotation that lacked it a year ago. To date, the results largely have been encouraging, if not overwhelming. An early loss to St. Joseph's was more than overcome by an emphatic rout of Kentucky and a win over in-state rival Purdue. In conference play, the results have been more mixed. Three wins including a tough one at Cincinnati have been balanced out by a home loss to a difficult Connecticut squad and an increasingly predictable road loss at St. John's. With four straight winnable games in front of them, now may be the time for the Irish to make their move.
Irish to Know. Notre Dame's lineup looks much the same as last year. In the back-court, Eric Atkins (12.3 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 6.7 apg, 46 3FG%) and Jerian Grant (12.4 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 5.4 apg) are a formidable tandem, with Atkins providing a bit more skill and Grant more size and athleticism, but both capable of a dangerous mix of scoring and passing. The wings are a pair of role players, Scott Martin (8.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 47.7 3FG%) a three-point specialist who, thanks to a transfer and an injury, has to be one of the last active college ballers born during the Reagan administration, and Pat Connaughton (9.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.7 apg), another perimeter threat. Down low, Jack Cooley (15.1 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 60.9 FG%) has completed his transformation from punch line to effective finisher to double-double machine.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball.
- Irish's strength: shot selection. Notre Dame famously played a "burn" offense last year that stretched out every possession to protect the Irish's woefully thin rotation. Despite the arrival of reinforcements this year, Brey has sped things up only marginally, kick-starting a team that ranked 328th nationally in pace all the way up to 303rd. But while all that clock-eating may look like wasted time, the Irish almost always end up with a good shot. Their hyper-efficient offense results in assists on over 67 percent of made baskets, and the Irish connect on over 40 percent from three-point range and 55 percent from two.
- Hoyas' strength: denying easy points. Georgetown and Notre Dame don't exactly look the same, but share two defensive strengths: denying open looks within the arc and not sending opponents to the line. For Georgetown, the question is whether the Irish can stretch the Hoyas enough with outside shooting to negate the inside advantage.
- Three things to watch:
- Pace. Saturday, Georgetown was unable to push the pace against South Florida, generating a turgid 55 possessions in a nearly unwatchable game. While we often think about pace as an offensive issue, it's also a defensive one: it's hard to push the pace when you can't force turnovers or missed shots. In the second half Saturday, Georgetown did very little of either, yielding 38 points despite the Bulls' molasses-like offense. Monday, they'll face a team that is in the top 20 nationally at protecting the ball and the top three nationally at shooting. The Hoyas will need to find some way to get out in transition, by forcing either turnovers or long, missed shots.
- Cooley. Henry Sims memorably shut down Cooley last year in Notre Dame's visit to the Verizon Center, making the Irish big man's later (like, a week later) selection over Hank as the Most Improved Player in the Big East all the more preposterous. Don't expect Cooley to go so quietly Monday night. He ranks eighth nationally in offensive efficiency among players who use the ball as often as he does, shooting a high percentage around the rim, getting to the line often, and rarely getting blocked or turning the ball over. The Hoya big men will have their hands full down low.
- Three-point shooting. Notre Dame is shooting over 47 percent from three in Big East play, the best mark in the conference. Martin is the best from deep, making nearly 48 percent of his tries, but five different Irish make at least one three per game on at least 38 percent shooting. Hot Notre Dame hands could make things ugly early.
When Georgetown Has the Ball.
- Hoyas' strength: ball movement. Georgetown's offense works best when the ball is moving quickly, whether moving up the floor in transition or rotating through sets in the half court. The Hoyas assist on more than 63 percent of made baskets, one of the top marks in the conference and the country. And Notre Dame is especially vulnerable to ball movement, yielding assists on 60 percent of made baskets.
- Irish's strength: denying easy points. Notre Dame rarely fouls, as Irish opponents score under 15 percent of their points from the charity stripe, one of the lowest marks in the country. And the Irish give up relatively little inside as well, denying open looks on the interior. Speaking of which....
- Three things to watch:
- Controlling the paint. Georgetown has made more than half of its shots from two-point range, the one area in which it has thrived offensively. Notre Dame has yielded just 43.2 percent from two. Who will control the paint on Monday?
- Mikael Hopkins. I've made much of the Hoyas' need for scoring depth. Generally, that's meant that Georgetown needs points from its bench, which has been capable in Greg Whittington's absence, scoring 15 or more points in the last four games. But bench scoring only comes into play if all of the starters are contributing as well. Saturday, Mikael Hopkins continued his abominable offense, failing to score and in so doing lowering his average under 3 points per game in conference play. Not to mention...
- Markel Starks. Less expected was the cratering of Markel Starks, who followed up two sterling performances with a putrid three points on 1-of-8 shooting. The Hoyas can ill afford to play 3 on 5 offensively, particularly with their starters on the floor. The Hoyas have lost the luxury of Starks being able to be a star one game and invisible the next.
Prediction. Saturday was a very tough loss. Even assuming the Hoyas can hold serve at home-a bold assumption, given that two top-five teams will visit the Phone Booth this season-they still need to come up with at least one road win to ensure a winning record in the conference. South Florida was a good opportunity to pick up that win, Notre Dame is less so. The Joyce Center has never been hospitable, particularly of late for Georgetown, which has lost in both of its last two trips to South Bend. And this year's Irish are a veteran bunch that need a conference win. As much as I normally have (occasionally misplaced) confidence in our Hoyas, the extended travel, quick turnaround, and doom and gloom from Saturday aren't encouraging. But I would love to be wrong. Notre Dame 63, Georgetown 58.