Top-25 action is on tap at Purcell Pavilion on Saturday evening, as the 13th-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish set their sights on the undefeated and third-ranked Virginia Cavaliers in ACC action.
Tony Bennett's Cavaliers are one of just three unbeaten teams left in the country (Kentucky and Duke are the others). The team moved to 14-0 on the year with Wednesday's 61-51 home win over NC State. Virginia is off to its best start since the 1980-81 season when it began 23-0 behind the play of the legendary Ralph Sampson.
The Cavaliers are putting their flawless record in serious jeopardy, as Mike Brey's Irish are one of the most explosive offensive teams in the country. Notre Dame has just one loss on the year and that came by a single point (75-74) to Providence back on Dec. 23. The Irish have strung together 11 straight wins since then and enter with a 3-0 league mark, including a narrow 71-70 victory over North Carolina on Monday in Chapel Hill.
This marks the ninth all-time meeting between these two teams. Notre Dame won the first meeting in 1981, but the Cavaliers have won seven meetings since, including a season sweep last year.
Junior guard Justin Anderson led all scorers with 16 points and just missed a double-double with nine rebounds as Virginia held off NC State this week in a 10-point victory. Fellow guard Malcolm Brogdon added 14 points for Virginia, which also received 12 points from forward Anthony Gill and 11 points from center Mike Tobey. Virginia won the battle on the boards, (39-30) and posted its 19th consecutive home win.
Stout defensive play sets everything up for Virginia and few teams in the country play as well as the Cavaliers do at that end of the floor. The team is holding opponents to just 50.8 ppg on the year, as foes are shooting a mere .337 from the field. Virginia also lives comfortably in terms of rebounding margin (+12.7). Anthony leads a trio of Cavaliers with double-digit scoring averages at 15.1 ppg. Brogdon is next in line at 13.0 ppg, followed closely by Gill and his 12.6 ppg.
There aren't many teams that can push Virginia to the limit, but the Irish may be one of them. Notre Dame is an offensive juggernaut this season, averaging 85.0 ppg, on an astounding .548 shooting that includes a .406 effort from behind the arc, with 8.8 made 3-pointers per game. Of the ACC's top 16 scorers, a quarter of those players are on the Notre Dame roster. Jerian Grant is the best of the bunch. He ranks third in the ACC in scoring (17.3 ppg) and first in assists (6.3 apg). Zach Auguste is next in the scoring column (14.9 ppg), with Demetrius Jackson (14.3 ppg) and Pat Connaughton (13.9 ppg) not far behind him.
Notre Dame held UNC to a mere 1-of-14 from the floor over the final seven-plus minutes of the game and held on for the narrow, one-point victory on the road to remain unbeaten in conference play. The Irish shot .460 from the floor overall and knocked down 10 3-pointers in the win. Grant struggled big time, going just 1-of-8 from the field and tallying just eight points. The rest of the guys picked up the slack though, as Auguste led the way with 18 points, followed by Connaughton and Jackson, who finished with 16 and 15 points, respectively.
Something has to give in this contest, as the explosive Irish face off against the stingy Cavaliers. Grant isn't prone to long droughts and getting this game at home is probably what will tip the scales in Notre Dame's favor. Still, this one should be a tough battle throughout.