Stagnant Notre Dame Has To Pick Itself Up Heading Into Meeting With Pitt
Notre Dame left its troubling loss to Virginia Tech Wednesday night with deflated moods and a lack of answers, the good vibes of a two-game win streak replaced with another humbling reminder the Irish are still missing the juice to punch back into the ACC’s upper tier.
There’s a realization the outlook for the year is dimmer than the preseason goals. That’s an unavoidable reality. It can’t, though, also become a launching point to start going through the motions. There are still twelve games are left. Notre Dame has to get back up and keep playing them, though it’s looking like they’re mainly for pride.
Even as coach Mike Brey wondered aloud if he had answers to Notre Dame’s ranked opponent problem, he made sure to convey his interest in the immediate task: turn around and prepare for another difficult game Saturday night at Pittsburgh (8 p.m. ET, ACCN).
“We’ll come back in tomorrow and get ready for Pittsburgh,” Brey said Wednesday. "And understand Pittsburgh has physicality and athletic ability that can get out and guard us like Virginia Tech.”
The Panthers (8-4, 4-3 ACC) are the conference’s resurgent team this season after going 9-29 in league play from 2018-20. They finished last season as KenPom’s No. 111 team and have jumped up to 70 this season. An NCAA tournament bid remains a possibility.
Pitt’s competence has two primary roots. An improved defense and an arrival from sophomore forward Justin Champagnie as an ACC Player of the Year candidate. Through seven league games, Pitt ranks fourth in the ACC in defensive efficiency and is outscoring opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s higher than Virginia Tech and behind only four other teams in conference play.
Champagnie is one of three power-conference players averaging a double-double this season and one of three in Division I averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. He’s at 20.2 points and 12.2 rebounds, while also averaging 1.8 assists, 1.5 blocks, 1.4 steals and shooting 54.9 percent from the field. He’s making three-pointers at 41 percent clip and taking nearly four per game.
The 6-6, 200-pound Champagnie isn’t a post-up machine, which would be troublesome for Notre Dame, but he’s difficult to guard because of his versatility. Per Synergy Sports, he has at least field goal attempts on putbacks (20), spot-up shots (28), cuts (36) and in transition (22). He has posted up 18 times. With the exception of cuts, he’s in the 83rd percentile or higher in efficiency in each category.
When Pitt has needed offense, it turns to him. He delivers with impressive consistency – he has scored at least 20 points in five of Pitt’s seven ACC games and hit double-figures in all of them.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, turns to junior guard Prentiss Hubb when it has nothing going. Too often, the Irish have needed him to lift the offense. He scored or assisted on 19 of their 22 first-half points in the loss to Virginia Tech. Over-reliance on him has not a winning formula – Notre Dame is 2-4 when he attempts at least 14 shots and 0-2 when he clears 20.
“There’s a perfect example of when we can’t get anything else going, he’s the only choice we have,” Brey said. “He was the only option we had. He was on an island trying to do stuff.”
It was frustrating for Hubb and for everyone. But no more time to lament it.
“We’ll flush it,” Brey said, “and move on.”
Notre Dame (5-9, 2-6 ACC) at Pittsburgh (8-4, 4-3)
When: Saturday, Jan. 30 at 8 p.m. ET
Where: Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh, Pa.
TV: ACC Network
Radio: Notre Dame Basketball Radio Network
Line: Pitt -3.5
KenPom prediction: Pitt 74, Notre Dame 70
Series history: Notre Dame leads 34-31
Last meeting: Notre Dame won 80-72 in Pittsburgh on Feb. 5, 2020
• Unlike Virginia Tech, Pitt’s defense features less pressure and doesn’t emphasize turnover generation. It’s beatable in the pick-and-roll and is allowing opponents to take 41 percent of their shots from three-point range. One wonders if the defensive numbers are inflated by playing mostly poor shooting teams that haven’t made the open threes given to them. The Panthers have played only three teams shooting better than 35 percent from deep this year.
• Notre Dame is shooting 37.2 percent on three-pointers (43rd nationally) and 34.4 in ACC games.
• Pitt guard Xavier Johnson leads the ACC in assists per game, at 6.3.
• Notre Dame junior forward Nate Laszewski leads the country in three-point percentage, at 55.1 percent (minimum eight games and 1.5 attempts per game). He has taken only 10 threes in his last five games, though, and did not attempt one in the loss to Virginia Tech.
• Junior guard Cormac Ryan missed Wednesday’s game due to an ankle injury. He is expected to return Saturday.
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