Game 32: Notre Dame (15-16, 6-12) vs. Wake Forest (16-15, 6-12) Date: March 12, 2014 Time: 1:00 p.m. ET Place: Greensboro Coliseum; Greensboro, N.C. TV: ESPN2
The first meeting: The Irish certainly had their chances against Jeff Bzdelik’s Demon Deacons on Jan. 25 in Notre Dame’s 65-58 loss at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum. After taking a 4-0 lead, the Irish were out-scored, 25-12. At one point, Notre Dame missed nine straight shots and 12-of-13 during a seven-and-a-half-minute drought. Yet the Irish trailed by just four at halftime.
Wake Forest held a pair of eight-point leads in the second half. Devin Thomas, a 6-foot-9, 245-pound sophomore, scored as many as 20 points just one time over the final 29 games of the regular season, and that was a 21-point outburst against the Irish in which he made 10 straight shots.
Yet when Garrick Sherman made a free throw with 2:24 remaining, the Irish led, 54-53. Wake’s Cody Miller-McIntyre then scored six of his eight points in the final two minutes while Travis McKie, who finished with 14 points, made four free throws in the final 27.6 seconds to help the Demon Deacons close on a 12-4 run.
Hot seat: No, it’s not Mike Brey. Wake Forest head coach Jeff Bzdelik is 50-77 overall in his fourth year in Winston-Salem, including just 17-51 in ACC play. The Demon Deacons have gone from one conference win in Bzdelik’s first season to four in 2011-12 and six in each of the past two seasons. Bzdelik reportedly told his team following an 80-72 home loss to Boston College on March 1 that he could lose his job as Wake Forest’s head coach. The Demon Deacons proceeded to defeat Duke four days later. That may not be enough to save his job, although he can claim that the conference win total has increased or has been duplicated in each of the past three seasons.
Keep an eye on…Codi Miller-McIntyre: The 6-foot-3, 195-pound sophomore has been at the forefront of the successes that the Demon Deacons have managed to carve out this season. Against Notre Dame, he did the bulk of his damage in the last two minutes of the game. He leads Wake Forest in scoring with a modest 12.9-point average and sports a fine 124-to-61 assist-to-turnover ratio. But he is a .634 shooter from the free-throw line and a woeful .206 shooter from three-point range. He’s scored at least 20 points nine times this season, but none in the last nine games with a high of 15. If Miller-McIntyre penetrates and has a good shooting game, Notre Dame will lose.
Travis McKie: The 6-foot-7, 220-pound senior is the Demon Deacons’ second-leading scorer at 11.2 points per game and the team’s third-leading rebounder (4.2). He will occasionally get hot from beyond the arc (5-of-6 vs. Virginia Tech). He scored 26 against Georgia Tech and 19 in the upset victory over Duke when he converted 9-of-10 from the free-throw line. If it’s late in the game and the Irish need to foul, McKie is the one to avoid. He has converted 102-of-127 attempts (.803).
Devin Thomas: After tossing in 21 points on 10-of-11 shooting against Notre Dame, the 6-foot-9, 245-pound sophomore scored as many as 18 points just once in the last 11 games, including a combined 2-of-10 in the last two regular-season games against Duke and Miami. But Thomas is Wake Forest’s top inside threat, averaging 11.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. He is shooting .539 from the field - everything comes from the paint - and he leads the team in offensive rebounds with 60. He also shoots .513 from the free-throw line and has turned the basketball over a team-leading 76 times.
Wake Forest wildcard: Tyler Cavanaugh - The 6-foot-9, 230-pound sophomore scored 20 points off the bench in the upset victory over Duke, due largely to a 10-of-12 effort from the free-throw line. Cavanaugh, who had just four points on 1-of-8 shooting against Notre Dame in late-January, did not score as many as 20 points in any other game this season, although he did toss in 12 in the victory over Clemson, and tallied 15 and 14 respectively down the stretch against North Carolina and Florida State. He’s scored in double digits in four of the last seven games after failing to do so in the previous six games.
Notre Dame wildcard: Steve Vasturia - The least heralded of the four Irish freshmen, the 6-foot-6, 207-pounder has averaged a tick less than 30 minutes of playing time over the final 15 games of the regular season. A Mike Brey favorite because of his team-defensive skills, Vasturia closed the regular season with 15 points against Pittsburgh on 3-of-6 shooting from three-point range and 11 points against North Carolina on 4-of-8 shooting from the field. He also grabbed a personal-best six rebounds against the Panthers.
Offensive surge: Although the improvement has been modest statistically, the Irish have played a more efficient game offensively since Brey made a move to a more structured, patterned offense seven games ago as opposed to Notre Dame’s customary free-flowing attack. The Irish shot .509 at Boston College, .466 in a home victory over Georgia Tech, .548 in an overtime loss to Pittsburgh and .481 at North Carolina. Just as importantly, the Irish have distributed and protected the basketball better in those last seven games. After a near one-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio in the previous seven games, the Irish have been 94-to-65 in the last seven, including 14-to-7 at Boston College, 17-to-6 at Miami, 11-to-6 at Virginia, and 14-to-5 versus Georgia Tech. During that four-game stretch, the Irish committed just 24 turnovers (6.0 per game).
Injury update: The Irish have had nine days to rest and prepare for Wake Forest with their regular-season break (one game instead of two) coming in the final week. The ankle that Pat Connaughton twisted on March 1 has had time to recover. Garrick Sherman, who suffered a chipped bone in his right pinky finger, which impacted his game the last two weeks of the regular season and kept him out of the March 3 game at North Carolina, should not be greatly impacted unless he suffers a setback during the Wake Forest game. Tom Knight sprained his left ankle this past weekend, but Brey expected him to be near 100 percent by the time the Irish convened in Greensboro.
Brey on loss to Wake Forest on Jan. 25: “We didn’t get off to a very good start. We finished the half great. First half, they shot 40 percent; second half, they shot 56 percent from the floor. We had two possessions defensively where we had a chance to get key stops (when we were) up one. We got hurt on a ball screen and we got hurt on a switch, and McIntyre drove and scored.
“So really, the story is the theme of what we discussed (last) Tuesday. They shoot 56 percent. Love how we finished the half. We didn’t get off to a great start. We didn’t have (Austin) Burgett. It was Tom Knight’s first game back, so it was a little bit of an interesting afternoon for us.
“Having said that, like many nights, we were there in that under four-minute timeout. But a key stop or a key defensive rebound or a key loose ball, we couldn’t get.”
Why Notre Dame will win: The Irish struggle when they are inferior on the backboards, and in Wake Forest, they have an opponent they can and should handle, especially with veterans like Garrick Sherman, Pat Connaughton, occasionally Tom Knight, and the youthful enthusiasm - when they come to play - of Zach Auguste and Austin Burgett.
Against Wake Forest in late-January, the Irish actually out-rebounded the Demon Deacons at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 33-32. Even more telling, the Irish had nine offensive rebounds to Wake Forest’s meager three.
Wake Forest is last in the ACC in defensive rebounding, last in offensive rebounding and last in rebounding margin. The Irish aren’t exactly sweeping the boards themselves, but when Sherman-Connaughton-Knight-Auguste-Burgett put their minds to it, they offer plenty up front to get it done against a Demon Deacons team that gets out-rebounded by an average of 7.8 per game.
“If you’re going to stay a while in Greensboro, you’re going to have to defend and rebound better,” Brey said.
Obviously, there are a couple of other musts. Eric Atkins and Pat Connaughton have to shoot better than 2-of-12 from three-point range and the Irish must be better than a collective 2-of-16, as they were in Winston-Salem. Steve Vasturia must offer more than two points (1-of-7 shooting) in 30 minutes of action.
If Devin Thomas goes 10-of-11 from the field again, Notre Dame will have difficulty keeping pace. Wake Forest is deeper, playing 10 to Notre Dame’s seven or eight. But when the two teams squared off, both teams logged 49 minutes from their bench.
Keep in mind that Winston-Salem, N.C., the home of Wake Forest, is just 30 miles up the road from Greensboro. There is the potential for a homecourt-like advantage. But Jeff Bzdelik’s squad didn’t take advantage with two of the previous three ACC tournaments in Greensboro, losing to Maryland by 13 last year, to the Terrapins by 22 in 2012 (in Atlanta) and to Boston College by 14 the year before that.
Comparatively speaking, the Irish are the hot team. They won half of their conference games in the final seven of the regular season, finishing 3-4. Wake Forest comes into ACC tournament play having lost seven of nine after starting 4-3. Those two victories were against No. 6-seed Clemson and No. 3 seed Duke. But those games were at home and the Blue Devils had their eyes on a battle with North Carolina four days later.
Although the Irish have rarely played like it all season, they are the veteran team and the one with the better focus heading into post-season play. The Irish live for another day and a shot to avenge a recent overtime loss to No. 5-seed Pittsburgh.
Pointspread: Notre Dame by 3 ½ Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 69, Wake Forest 62 Prister’s record: 21-10 straight up; 9-19 vs. points