#1 Villanova Wildcats (9-0) vs. #23 Notre Dame Fighting Irish (9-0)
When: Saturday, December 10, 2016, at 12 p.m.
Where: Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.
KenPom Prediction: 76-69, Villanova (74%)
Notre Dame’s Previous Season Record: 24-12, Lost to North Carolina in Elite 8 of NCAA Tournament
Key Players for Notre Dame: #35 Bonzie Colson (6-5, 225) Jr., F; #32 Steve Vasturia (6-6, 212) Sr., G; #3 V.J. Beachem (6-8, 201) Sr., F
Scouting Report: The Fighting Irish are coming in red-hot. There were some questions heading into the season regarding how Notre Dame would do with Demetrius Jackson now in the NBA and 1,000-point scorer Zach Auguste graduated. Both were instrumental pieces in Notre Dame’s run to the Elite 8, but for this season–so far, so good. The Fighting Irish are off to the best start in program history and will hope to continue that streak with the help of Bonzie Colson, Notre Dame’s top player who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. Colson has a team-high 17.1 points per game and a conference-best 11.1 boards per game going into Saturday’s game. Colson is a double-double machine, racking up at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in each of the last six games. He’s continuing his upswing from last year, which was his first season in an expanded role. The junior forward is a scrapper inside. He plays fearlessly and will fight for rebounds and baskets. Colson is a strong finisher around the basket and can sink his layups in traffic with ease. Although the 3-point shot isn’t a big part of his game, he can occasionally sink his threes if left open. He’s a rising star in the ACC and is surely looking forward to his opportunity to prove his worth against the defending National Champions.
It’s far from being a one-man show, however. Like Colson, V.J. Beachem is continuing his growth after taking on a bigger role last season. He’s averaging 16.8 points per game this season, and has scored in double figures in all nine games so far. Beachem is more of an all-around scorer in comparison to Colson. He has the ability to score from almost anywhere. Last season, he was the team’s top 3-point shooter. This year, he hasn’t had the same success, shooting 36.2 percent from long range, but that doesn’t mean you should discount his ability to pull up from deep. Also keep an eye out for Steve Vasturia, who is emerging as a solid two-way player. Vasturia was mainly known for his perimeter defense and his ability to take on opposing team’s top players. He’s still maintaining that defensive tenacity, while becoming more of a contributor on the offensive end. So far, he’s averaging 16.4 points per game and is posting career-high shooting percentages. (51.5 percent overall, 46.2 percent from deep) Running the floor is point guard Matt Farrell, who’s posting a solid 5.4 assists per game. He’s usually forgotten about, while teams hone in on the other scoring threats, but can quietly have a double digit scoring performance. Farrell can also brag about his perfect 24-for-24 performance at the free throw line, not missing a single one going into Saturday. Notre Dame has a couple of key contributors off the bench, such as Matt Ryan and Temple “T.J.” Gibbs–the younger brother of former Seton Hall Pirate Sterling Gibbs and Pittsburgh Panther Ashton Gibbs. Ryan is a 3-point specialist, taking all but seven of his shot attempts from long range. The sophomore sharpshooter is 20-of-42 (47.6 percent) from deep. As for Gibbs, a freshman backup point guard, he’s a solid all-around player off the bench.
Overall, as a team, Notre Dame doesn’t make very many mistakes. According to KenPom, the Fighting Irish boast the lowest turnover rate in all of Division I basketball (11.7 percent of possessions). They are also nearly automatic from the free throw line, converting another Division I-best 85.9 percent of foul shots. Also, while Colson may be an interior-oriented player, the team as a whole shoots very well from beyond the arc. Notre Dame has connected on 41.3 percent of its 3-pointers, good for 13th in the nation.
Outlook: Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey is 7-4 in his career when going against defending National Champions. It’s a pretty scary figure for the Wildcats, who looked vulnerable against unranked La Salle. The Wildcats will need to remain disciplined on defense–no overcommitting, can’t leave assignments unguarded, and will need to minimize Notre Dame’s trips to the free throw line. As for Notre Dame, La Salle displayed a defensive game plan that works–run the ‘Cats off the 3-point line and force them to take tough mid-range jumpers or layups.
There will be two battles on Saturday that will decide the game. The first will be at the 3-point line. Long range shots are important to both teams’ offensive game plans. While Colson is rumbling inside, Notre Dame has a number of shooters it can rely on from the outside. Meanwhile, for Villanova, it seems like every one except for Darryl Reynolds can take and make threes. Whoever is able to dominate the perimeter game will put themselves in a favorable position to win the game, especially if they win the second battle–Notre Dame’s offense vs. Villanova’s defense.
According to KenPom, every player on Notre Dame’s roster has an offensive efficiency rating that’s above a hundred. Overall as a team, the Fighting Irish are ranked seventh in the nation for offensive efficiency. Notre Dame is not as strong defensively as it is offensively. The Fighting Irish will need their scorers to make their shots, even replicate what the Explorers did on Tuesday night (52.5 percent shooting). Villanova will be tested. The Wildcats have been stellar in the first eight games in terms of defense. While their defense is still ranked amongst the top 20 statistically, the Wildcats were pushed around by La Salle. Notre Dame is much more talented than La Salle. Mikal Bridges and Josh Hart will most likely share time defending Colson. If they can take him away, the rest should fall like dominoes. He gets the team going. Conversely, if Villanova can shut down Notre Dame at the perimeter, there’s no way he can singlehandedly carry the Irish. Notre Dame isn’t going to turn the ball over much, so this will be a pure test of defensive skills. Notre Dame has many different weapons and this is a high-powered offense that averages just under 90 points a game. Villanova has to slow it down to win the game, and Notre Dame will need to pour it on.