So far my pick for ACC Player of the Year at the quarter turn is going to be from Notre Dame. Only I can’t decide which guy is more important, Jerian Grant or Pat Connaughton. Each is a 6’5″ senior capable of leading the Fighting Irish on any given night. Grant has been devastating in his role as the point after his year in exile, though he sometimes cedes the bringing the ball up duties to Demetrius Jackson.
Connaughton’s slash lines have been excellent this year, demonstrating both accuracy and good decision-making, He is shooting above 50% from the field, 80% from the line, and 47% from three. It’s easy to see the easy harmony between he and Grant as they find great shot after great shot. Having 6’10 big man (the only big man in the starting five) Zach Auguste to help clean things up has been an added bonus. He is currently converting at 64.2% and leading the ACC in that category.
Last week’s win against Michigan State in the ACC/B1G challenge offset a one-point neutral-site loss to Providence on a casino reservation floor somewhere in out-of-the-way Connecticut. Providence was ranked 43rd in the RPI, and lost to Boston College (RPI 80), who lost to UMass (RPI 99) who Notre Dame beat on that same Mohegan Sun floor in the same tournament where they lost to Providence. Quite a circuitous route to get back to the starting point. It did take a huge night from Providence standout LaDontae Henton to secure the win, as he had 38 points and a few critical defensive gems down the stretch.
Notre Dame plays as pretty an offensive game as you’ll find in the ACC these days outside of Duke. Coincidence? Mike Brey is a former Coach K assistant after all. Unfortunately for the Irish, their lack of attention to the post is reminiscent of the same mistakes Coach K had made with his roster, often relying on one big man like Sheldon Williams, or even a guy a notch below like Lance Thomas in the late 00s. This lack of emphasis on matching up in the post can be mitigated against early on when you’re playing lesser competition. What will it mean when Notre Dame enters conference play?
As it stands, the Irish are 240th in the RPI because their schedule has been an absolute mockery. They have played three of the worst 20 teams in the RPI, #s 326, 333, 340; and to step it up a bit, they’ve played world-beating #s 252 and 293. That’s five of their eight games. They literally couldn’t have scheduled much easier. So, everything good that follows in terms of numbers I reference in the next section should be viewed through that lens. Let’s take a look back at the first quarter and try to make some sense of it.
Note: First quarter only deals with the regular season schedule. We’ll call the postseason overtime when we arrive there this Spring.
Why a B+?
The loss to Providence at a neutral site wasn’t horrible. But the win at home vs Michigan State was a struggle that went to OT. It was good for Brey to coach those scenarios, but you’d have hoped that a senior-led team might have handled the rebuilding Spartans with a little more ease. And as I mentioned above the rest of the wins are definitely against suspect competition. On the bright side, they get a B+ instead of a B because of the outstanding performances that their starting five is turning out, and the margins of victory have been commensurate with the quality of the opponent against the really weak teams. Time will tell if the Providence loss was a “good” loss. Right now it’s on the borderline.
How Can They Improve Their RPI Before Conference Play?
After a game this week against Mount St. Mary’s (170), the Irish will open ACC play against Florida State. So not much room to grow before then. They also have two more games out of the league at the end of the month against Northern Illinois (127) and Hartford (142). Neither of those games will inspire any type of borderline selection committee decision to go in the Irish’ favor. Notre Dame needs to play well in the ACC in order to get a decent seed. A .500 record sees them firmly on a bubble with 20 wins entering the conference tournament. 22 wins might be enough to guarantee a bid, but the quality of the seed might be lower than desired due to their RPI. If Notre Dame narrowly misses out for some reason, which I believe is unlikely, Coach Brey will know to look in the mirror and admonish the scheduler.
What Does Notre Dame Do Well?
- They score unrelentingly on over-matched opponents from schools you’ve barely heard of? Yes, well, actually they do. Nonetheless, Notre Dame is 14th nationally in scoring offense. And they are blowing teams out when they should for the most part, winning by 25 points per game, good for 6th.
- They are the best shooting team in the country, connecting on 55.8% of their field goals. Their starting five creates very well for each other, and the team ranks 17th nationally in assists.
- They knock down shots both near and far. They rank 9th in 3s made, and are the best in the ACC.
- They are a very disciplined group, and rank 5th nationally in fouls allowed per game. Part of me thinks that this is due to a lack of respect their opponents were getting. RPI 300s don’t get much love from officials trying to make a late dinner reservation.
- And once again, a common theme has been: Teams that take care of the ball win more games. Rocket science, I know. The Irish rank 10th in Assist to TO ratio, largely due to Jerian Grant’s shrewd decision-making and the motion sets that the Irish use to create corner 3s and pindowns.
Where Can The Irish Improve?
- They rank 311th in offensive rebounding. With a smallish starting lineup, the team often leaves Auguste to battle for the board in favor of numbers getting back. If the Irish continue to convert at their present rate (a bit unlikely once ACC play begins) then this may not be a huge issue. A little more pushback here though might go a long way.
- Minutes. As in too many played by the starters against scrub teams. They have three of the top 10 minutes earners in the league right now. The other night in a blowout win over Fairleigh Dickinson, Notre Dame still played two non-starters more than 10 minutes each, and only 11 minutes and 10 minutes at that. Cultivating a little depth is highly necessary. This team couldn’t afford a key injury at all, in my estimation. And they might be more apt to such an injury due to overuse.
The Irish look like a tournament team. They have great veteran leadership. They can shoot the lights out. But are they more than a 22 win team? More than 11-1 out of conference and 11-7 inside? Will those 11 wins include anything better than the Michigan State win when it all shakes out? When all is said and done, this team might a bottom-feeder, and that might be enough to get them as far as they could have gone with this collection of talent anyway.
For more on the team’s outlook, watch this interesting Jerian Grant retrospective, the team seems stronger for the experience:
The Week Ahead
Games Tuesday and Saturday against Mt St Marys (170) and Florida St (156) in both teams’ ACC season-opener. Couple quick notes on the opponents:
- MSM’s lost to Wake Forest by 34. They have lost games to both Arizona and Seton Hall by the score of 78-55.
- FSU lost to Northeastern, Providence, and Nebraska. They have not looked good, though they are maybe a little tougher inside than Notre Dame. They will try to slow this game to a brawl, with lots of clutching. I like ND to get the whistles at home in order to get the job done.
Please stay tuned as I run down each of the ACC teams first quarter marks as we rev up our coverage on Inside The ACC. Please air any grievances below in the comments! You might be just in time for feats of strength!
Have a great week all, and check back in as I am going to be posting these until I am exhausted (at least a few a day until complete). Follow me on Twitter (@insidetheacc)