The Jackets take on Notre Dame, looking to continue their mini win streak and even the season series with the Irish. Before the game, we sat down with Patrick Sullivan from One Foot Down to get his insight on what he expects when the Irish and Jackets hit the court.
FTRS: John Mooney is second in the nation in rebounding at just 6’9”. This boggles my mind but it also brings to mind Bonzie Colson, who was an excellent rebounder despite being completely undersized. Can you explain this? Do coach Brey and his staff teach rebounding differently up there or what?
Part of the credit should probably be given to the coaching staff — particularly guys like Ryan Humphrey, a former big man for the Irish who knew a thing or two about rebounding in his day (averaged 18 and 10 in his senior season at ND). I’m not sure they go about teaching rebounding in any radically-different fashion, but they definitely have to teach 3-star big men how to compete in the ACC against the Dukes and UNCs and Florida States with their huge, towering big men, so they’ve got years of practice turning overlooked guys into fierce rebounders.
But part of it, I think, is also just Brey and co. finding high-motor big men with chips on their shoulders due to being undersized or less athletic who end up out-working opponents in the paint. That kind of thing goes back to the days of Luke Harangody and Jack Cooley and has continued recently with Bonzie and Mooney — ND has a knack for finding guys hungry to prove they can compete with the big boys, despite whatever limitations they have that caused the blue bloods to ignore them in recruiting.
FTRS: You guys are first in the nation in assist to turnover ratio and lead the nation in fewest turnovers per game. We could certainly learn a thing or two from you guys as we are a team that tries to move the ball but just isn’t very successful at protecting it. Could you sum up what allows your group to excel at this?
It’s just Brey’s offensive system — the Irish are always highly-ranked in those stats, because his system is a free-flowing one that focuses on veteran guys taking care of the ball and passing it around until they get an open, high-percentage shot.
He recruits players to fit into and develop within that system who can handle the ball, are good passers, don’t need to play lots of 1-on-1 to be effective, etc. So then it’s plug-and-play and the wheel keeps turning. The only times you really see it fail or falter are times like last season, when there are too many young, inexperienced guys trying to run the offense — and even then, the turnovers stayed low, because these guys just know how to take care of the ball.
FTRS: The Irish always play a short bench year in and year out. Have you seen any sort of negative impact as the season wears on due to this strategy? Are fans okay with it?
In a season like this one (or last year, or the year prior), most fans trot out the short bench as a major issue that limits the team and causes fatigue during the heart of conference play. And they’re definitely right to a point, as it isn’t helping the team to have such a reliance on 6-7 guys all playing well enough and staying healthy enough to make the tournament.
However, you don’t hear much about the short bench during the good years — the 2014-2015 team that took Kentucky to the wire in the Elite Eight essentially had a 7 person rotation (with an 8th guy who sometimes played a few minutes in a game to give someone a super-quick breather), and they were potentially the best Notre Dame team ever — or at least the best in Brey’s tenure and since Digger Phelps’s peak as head coach.
I would never claim it’s not a factor at all — if injuries hit (they have the past three seasons, unfortunately), you do see some tired guys out there, and also just a lack of talent that can be brought in if someone is having an off game. That can turn some wins into losses over the course of a season, for sure. But with that said, I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest issue with this or any other ND team — Brey uses a short bench by design, to have a cohesive, veteran group that is out there running his system confidently and cleanly. Usually, that system and that small group of smart, veteran guys is enough.
FTRS: In the first matchup between these teams this season, Prentiss Hubb exploded for 25 points. Should Tech fans expect a similar output from him again and how should the Jackets defend him differently this time?
Hubb has been a pretty damn good scorer in ACC play, averaging 16 points per game. However, he has been up-and-down throughout the conference slate, with games of 22, 22, 24, 24, and 25 points but also games where he scored 9, 8, 8, and — most recently against Wake Forest on Wednesday — 5 points.
Nevertheless, he’s one of the best playmakers on the team in terms of being able to create his own shot off the dribble, and his improvement in three-point shooting this season coupled with his ability to penetrate and attack the hoop has made him the most dangerous and versatile offensive weapon the Irish have. So, I’d say Yellow Jacket fans should be expecting something closer to the 25-point game than a 5-point game in this one, but that kind of career day isn’t necessarily guaranteed.
To defend Hubb, I’d say not letting him into the lane and contesting his jumpers are huge initiatives to focus on. He has a propensity to make a few boneheaded plays per game, so if you frustrate him by cutting off his drives, and then disrupt his shot a bit, he could get into struggle-mode and be a little too stubborn to stop trying to shoot through it. The more you can make him uncomfortable, the more likely he is to do something wild that leads to a bad shot or a turnover.
Also, a bonus note: GT players should try not to piss him off — Hubb seems to thrive on jawing with opponents and hitting big shots in their face, so the more amicable the Yellow Jackets can be with him, the better chance there is he doesn’t go off tomorrow afternoon.
FTRS: One thing I’ll never forget during my time at Tech was seeing a priest on your bench during a game in which we hosted you. How heavily involved is he in game planning and team activities?
Aside from pre-game prayers and Catholic mass-celebrating duties, I don’t think he is too involved in game planning — although I would love to hear him install the triangle offense in practice by using the Holy Trinity as an example to work from, or even just take a page out of Norman Dale’s book and use religion to inspire the players to play super well:
FTRS: It’s been said that at Tech that there are six different people that wear the “Buzz” mascot costume at any given time. How many leprechauns are there?
As far as I know, there are three Leprechauns at ND right now. This year the Irish had their first female Leprechaun, and also the #1 Leprechaun (the one who does the football games) was the second African-American Leprechaun ever, I believe (shout out Samuel Jackson, dude is amazing).
FTRS: Jose Alvarado has a signature air guitar celebration that he pulls out after hitting a big shot. Do any Notre Dame players have a go to move like this?
I can’t think of any super signature celebrations for this group. Dane Goodwin likes to stand at midcourt and give a primal scream after he single-handedly produces a comeback scoring run and forces the opponent to call a timeout, and T.J. Gibbs and Prentiss Hubb probably do some little things after hitting a bunch of threes, but overall I can’t think of anything super unique and signature for any of the guys, like when Matt Farrell was at ND a couple years back and would run down the court with his tongue hanging out after a big three.
This team also hasn’t had THAT much to celebrate the past couple years, so that has had an impact on this answer too, I think.
FTRS: What is your confidence level on Notre Dame making the NCAA Tournament this year?
About 20%. I DO believe that this ND team is starting to play really good basketball, and they are competing with every ACC opponent they face in what looks like a down year for the league. Thus, a run against some middling competition over the next month isn’t out of the question.
With that said, a TON will have to go right for a team that always seems to find a way to crumble down the stretch in big games, so until this ND squad takes down a really good opponent, I will not hold my breath regarding their NCAA Tourney chances.
FTRS: How do you think this game shakes out? What’s your prediction on final score and who wins?
I think it shakes out pretty similarly to the first meeting — it will be close due to Georgia Tech’s propensity for playing physical, defensive games, but the Irish will pull away down the stretch, leaning on the Purcell home crowd to inspire some big threes in the final 10 minutes and win this by a score of 76-67.
Many thanks to Pat for taking the time to answer our questions. Make sure to check out some Notre Dame coverage over at One Foot Down.