Wednesday will be senior night for the Irish, their last home game of the season. The last meeting between Clemson and Notre Dame on the football field, of course, was a Cotton Bowl blowout for the Tigers in the College Football Playoff a couple months ago. The last time they met on the hardwood was over a year ago, January of 2018, when the Tigers beat the Irish for the first time in basketball, 67-58 in Littlejohn. You may recall that was the game in which Donte Grantham tore his ACL and was lost for the rest of his senior season. That was also the day in which Zion Williamson announced he would leave his home state of South Carolina to play at Duke. I remember racing from the post-game press conference at Littlejohn to his high school in Spartanburg to cover the announcement. Most of us thought he would commit to Clemson, and his mom certainly wanted him to, but it was not to be. Fast-forward a year, and Williamson is a National Player of the Year candidate and the presumptive #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft! Oh, what could have been for the Tigers! Had he stayed in state and enrolled at Clemson, the Tigers would be a legitimate top-10 team with a shot at the Final Four. But that's been the story of the season for the Tigers--what could have been. They are just a few unlucky breaks from being a top-25 team. Instead, they are fighting for their lives on the NCAA bubble.
NOTRE DAME SYNOPSIS
It's been an uncharacteristically bad season for Mike Brey and the Irish. After several consecutive seasons making the NCAA Tournament, including a couple deep runs, they were a No.1 seed in the NIT last season and won't even make the NIT this year, currently at 13-16 overall and 3-13 in the ACC. The Irish lost a couple All-ACC players from last season in Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell. On top of that, they suffered a big loss back in December when they lost veteran guard Rex Pflueger to a torn ACL, and they also lost a team captain in forward Elijah Burns, who graduated in December and decided to transfer. Also, D.J. Harvey, their third-leading scorer at 10.7 points per game, will miss the game with a hamstring, and two more guards--Carmody and Djogo--are out with injuries as well. Those 3 guards combined for 48.5 minutes per game, so the Irish are exceptionally thin at the guard position. Notre Dame's only ACC wins this season are over bottom-dwellers Boston College (twice) and Georgia Tech, losing its last 5 straight.
The Irish are led by 6'9, 242-pound junior forward John Mooney. He is a very versatile big man, similar to Luke May, and it will be an interesting matchup between Mooney and Eli Thomas. Mooney is coming off a 22-point game in their loss at Louisville over the weekend. Thomas and Simms will have to be cognizant of the fact that Mooney can step out and make 3's. He is a 37% shooter from beyond the arc, which is best on the team with Pflueger out. Mooney averages a double-double at 14.3 points and 10.9 rebounds per game, leading the team in both. 6'3 junior guard T.J. Gibbs is their next best scorer at 13.8 points per game. He only shoots 32.4% from beyond the arc.
Mike Brey will play a lot of zone defense, so the Tigers will need to bring their 3-point shooting, something they haven't always done on the road, and stretch that zone out. They should also attack the high post area. Reed loves that mid-range jumper, so he might have some open shots in that area. Notre Dame is not a good rebounding team--the Irish are second to last in the ACC in rebounding margin. That is something the Tigers may be able to exploit. Notre Dame is also not a good 3-point shooting team at 31.8%, which is good because that has been a bugaboo for the Tigers all season. They gave up thirteen 3's in the 2-point loss to No.5 UNC on Saturday. The Tigers are dead last in the conference in 3-point defense at 35.4%. Notre Dame does a good job taking care of the basketball. They are 6th in the ACC in turnover margin. They are also a very good free throw shooting team at 74.7%, 4th in the ACC.
The Tigers are coming off their fourth heartbreaking last-second loss of the season, this time at the hands of No.5 UNC, which is now ranked No.3 and blew No.1 Duke out a week earlier in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Tigers were without their best defender, David Skara, who injured his elbow in practice, and the Heels made 13 three-pointers, the second-most they've made all season. Yet the Tigers still had the ball with less than 10 seconds left and a chance to tie or win. The refs let heavy body contact go on Mitchell's drive to the basket rather than putting him on the free throw line with a chance to send the game to overtime. If Skara had played, the Tigers would have won by a couple scores. They'd be 8-8 in the ACC and have an excellent chance to return to the NCAA Tournament. But that's the kind of season it's been for the Tigers--a season of "what ifs." They have 3 more losses just like that--all on the road, 2 of them against ranked teams and 2 in which they led with one second left. If the Tigers do not make the NCAA Tournament, they will be one of the best teams ever to be left out...and one of the unluckiest.
David Skara's status is obviously of the utmost importance going into this game. He practiced on Tuesday to test the elbow, but it will be a game-time decision. If he's able to play at close to 100%, the Tigers should win this game comfortably. Otherwise, it could be another battle on the road. A lot will also depend on how the Tigers respond to their 4th gut-wrenching loss of the season. They have bounced back well in previous heartbreakers, but that is always the great unknown. My intuition says they will play with a chip on their shoulders and come to win. Eli Thomas has done a good job lately avoiding foul trouble and staying on the floor. When he plays at least 30 minutes, the Tigers usually win. He had 4 fouls late in the UNC game and had to go offense-defense in the final minutes. Marcquise Reed had a tremendous game against the Heels on Saturday, scoring 24 points.
The Tigers have been a pretty good road team this season but have had some bad luck. They blew out Georgia Tech and Pitt, which are on roughly the same level as Notre Dame, on the road, and they should have beaten Miami and NC State. They also had a chance to beat Louisville on the road in the final seconds. I think the Tigers bounce back strong and beat Notre Dame for the first time on the road, giving themselves a chance to finish the regular season 9-9 in the ACC with a home win over Syracuse.
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