Tuesday night, the Jackets will look to bounce back from their biggest loss of the season when they take on Notre Dame. Before the game, we sat down with Patrick Sullivan from One Foot Down to get his insight on what he expects when the Fighting Irish and Jackets battle in Atlanta.
FTRS: How have Notre Dame fans felt about the season so far? What were the expectations entering the year and how has the team’s performance compared?
Notre Dame fans definitely don’t feel good about this season, considering the Irish are 1-4 in ACC play and really only have one decent win to their name, beating Purdue back in December. Otherwise, this has been a season where expectations were already low heading in, thanks to the loss of Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell, and Martinas Geben from last year, and also due to the heavy reliance on true freshmen that we knew this team would have.
Expectations were essentially that ND would be an NIT team that maybe could sneak into the tourney if the freshmen came along faster than expected, but then senior captain Elijah Burns transferred mid-season to Siena, the other senior captain Rex Pflueger tore his ACL, and transfer big man Juwan Durham, who is a top-5 shot blocker in the country when healthy, injured his ankle and is now out indefinitely. That very quickly took “NIT-and-maybe-an-NCAA-bubble-team” as the expectation and made it so that making the NIT would be a huge accomplishment.
In the long run, this year should be good for the program, in that it’s giving all these young guys tons of experience. The entire team returns next season, so ND fans can look forward to the next couple years being much better. But this year, it’s just gonna be a rough ride with lots of losses and lots of growing pains.
FTRS: Notre Dame has an interesting resume so far, including a win over Purdue and a loss to Radford. How would you explain the teams difference in performance from game to game?
I’d mostly chalk it up to youth, as you never really know which freshmen will show up and which won’t on any given night. But then I also think the veterans have been inconsistent as well, with the exception of John Mooney, who’s having a fantastic junior season.
But guys like TJ Gibbs and DJ Harvey (only a sophomore and coming off an injury, but on this team he’s more a veteran than a lot of others) have been super streaky and at times have disappeared, and so it’s led to both good performances (Purdue -- this was helped by Pflueger having a fantastic game before going down late with his ACL tear) and very, very bad performances (losing to Radford, nearly losing to then-winless Coppin State, etc.).
FTRS: Notre Dame’s offense has really struggled this year, ranking 245th in Kenpom’s offensive efficiency rankings. Meanwhile, the Georgia Tech defense ranks inside the top 10. How do you expect the Irish to attack the Tech defense and try to score points despite the discrepancy in performance so far this season?
I imagine they’ll do their best to run the offense through John Mooney, as he’s been pretty good scoring from the post, but also can step out and hit threes.
However, considering GT has some talent inside that can swat shots, I’m sure the Irish will bomb away from three as well, as they take the most threes per game in the ACC, I believe. However, their efficiency in those threes isn’t always very good (25% -- 7-of-28 -- against NC State this past Saturday), so I don’t expect them to come out and shoot the lights out on the road against such a good defense like the Yellow Jackets’. They will struggle to score, I’m sure of it.
FTRS: TJ Gibbs leads the Irish in both minutes and scoring. What does he bring to the team? What makes his game effective?
He’s a confident, hard-working guy who can really shoot it from deep and who has a toughness, both on defense and in general, that he developed from getting beat up on in the backyard by his older brothers Ashton and Sterling.
He’s a solid passer and a decent defender and has been playing off the ball more recently, allowing him to focus on knocking down some shots instead of trying to distribute it to everyone. When he’s hot, he has the confidence and shooting stroke to knock down a lot of threes and keep ND in any game -- it just depends if he’s getting a chance to take those shots, and if he is indeed on his game.
FTRS: John Mooney pulls in almost 11 rebounds per game. How is he so successful on the glass?
Mooney is just a junkyard dog. He’s fairly athletic for a power forward, but it’s also not like he’s jumping out of the gym and skying for rebounds, either.
Instead, he’s just really smart and tough and strong with how he boxes out and establishes position to grab boards. He works as hard as anyone on the floor, which is scary because he’s essentially all ND has in terms of good rebounding and he’s gotta be getting exhausted at this point.
FTRS: Who could be the X-factor in this game? Who’s a player who may not always see significant minutes, but could become a difference maker against the Jackets?
I think it has to be either Dane Goodwin or Prentiss Hubb. Both guys are freshman guards who have the ability to penetrate and attack the rim and also the passing ability to dish it when the defense collapses. Goodwin just scored 19 against NC State in his coming-out party, and Hubb has been streaky but a serviceable freshman point guard for the Irish. At this point, every scholarship guy on the roster is getting minutes because of the injuries and whatnot, so there’s no one who doesn’t see at least somewhat significant minutes. But I’d pick those two as guys who, if they bring their A-game, can really make plays and be the difference aside from the expected key guys like Mooney and Gibbs.
One other name to remember -- Nate Laszewski, who’s a 6’10”, freshman stretch four who is EASILY the best outside shooter on the team. He’s been in a rut lately and was almost nonexistent against NC State, but if he’s hitting shots, he’s pretty hard to stop considering his height and considering he has just enough athletic ability to mix it up down low if the jumper isn’t there. If he can get back on track, he’s a fantastic weapon against a great defensive team like GT.
FTRS: What’s your prediction for the game? Who wins and why?
If this were at Purcell, I’d definitely take the Irish. But on the road, against this Georgia Tech defense, I just don’t see how this young ND offense will find enough good shots -- and then make enough of those good shots -- to come away with a victory. I think Georgia Tech wins 67-61.
Many thanks to Pat for taking the time to answer my questions. Make sure to check out some Notre Dame coverage over at One Foot Down.