On Tuesday night, Notre Dame men’s basketball suffered a narrow road loss against an NC State team that will likely be playing in the NCAA Tournament. The Irish will seek to get a better result Saturday, when they return to Purcell Pavilion to host conference foe Louisville.
The Irish and Cardinals have both struggled through much of the season. Notre Dame enters the game looking to shake off a four-game losing streak that has dropped them to 9-12 (1-9 in the ACC). Louisville, meanwhile, has perhaps disappointed more than any other team in the nation. The Cardinals are just 2-18, the worst record of any major conference team, and are winless in ACC play. Notre Dame will look to ensure they stay that way and gain some momentum before heading into a string of very winnable games against Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech.
For the Irish, it is difficult to attribute their current slump to anything other than late-game execution. The outcome of eight of their ten ACC games has been in question into the final minutes, save for double-digit losses to Miami and North Carolina. Notre Dame has been in nearly every game it has played. But the Irish just have not found the right buttons to press in order to win tight games, a shock for a team with so much veteran talent.
Tuesday’s loss encapsulated how much of the ACC slate has gone for Notre Dame. The Irish played a talented team in a hostile environment, yet were in control for much of the game. When it came down to crunch time, though, they could not get the job done. Each of their four losses since defeating Georgia Tech has told a similar story.
Disappointing results notwithstanding, there have been several positive trends as of late that could provide a boost against Louisville. The first is the return to form of graduate student guard Cormac Ryan. After a brief midseason slump, Ryan has regained his shooting stroke and has been on a tear as of late. After making just eight total three-pointers during a seven-game stretch that spanned most of January, he has connected on eight in the last two games alone. He has shot at a 62% clip from deep in those contests.
When Ryan gets hot, he becomes nearly unstoppable from beyond the arc. The Irish are a different team when he is shooting the ball well. In their best performance of the season to date, an 18-point win against then-No. 20 Michigan State, Ryan made a season-high six threes and scored 23 points.
Also promising for the Irish has been the play of their freshman duo, guard J.J. Starling and forward Ven-Allen Lubin. Both had arguably the best game of their young Notre Dame careers against NC State. Starling has appeared to get more and more comfortable all season and has scored in double figures five times in the last seven games. On Tuesday, he scored 18 points, notably doing much of his work in transition. This was a welcome change for the Irish, who rank near the bottom of the country in fastbreak points. Starling actively looking to run the floor provides a new dimension for a team that has usually looked to slow things down offensively.
With graduate student forward Nate Laszewski in foul trouble, Lubin played 22 minutes, his most since November. In that time, he established a post presence on both ends of the floor. Utilizing uncommon strength and quickness for a freshman, he posted 10 points and two blocks while also playing tough on the glass. Notre Dame is known as an “old” team, and rightfully so, with five graduate students in their seven-man rotation. But Starling and Lubin have been improving all season and are ready to make a big impact down the stretch.
Louisville’s troubles cannot be pinpointed to one single facet of the game. The Cardinals rank dead last in the ACC in both points scored and allowed. Offensively, most of the load has been carried by El Ellis, who leads the team with averages of 17.8 points and 4.7 assists per game. Remarkably, not a single other Cardinal has averaged double-digit points or more than one assist, shedding some light as to why they have struggled. As a team, Louisville has shot just over 32% from three-point range. Given Notre Dame’s difficulties with defending opposing big men around the basket, the Irish will likely pack the paint and dare the Cardinals to beat them from beyond the arc.
Turnovers have also plagued Louisville, who have averaged 16.6 per game, fourth-most in the country. Notre Dame, meanwhile, averages just 9.4 turnovers, fourth-least nationally. Although the Irish did give the ball away 15 times against NC State. The Irish prefer to take their time and work to get the best possible shot off. However, that has seemingly contributed to the team’s late-game woes. When opposing defenses buckle down in the closing stages of the game, Notre Dame has often been forced to hoist difficult shots late in the shot clock.
Against a team that turns the ball over as much as Louisville does, the Irish may benefit from making more of an effort to push the pace. That should provide easier opportunities to get to the rim or kick the ball out to a knockdown shooter.
Notre Dame has been knocking on the door for several games but has not found their moment to break through and start stringing ACC victories together. Saturday’s game represents as good an opportunity as any, and the Irish will look to improve upon their 9-5 home record and make the Cardinals wait a little bit longer for that elusive first conference win.
Notre Dame will host Louisville at Purcell Pavilion on Saturday. The game tips off at noon. The matchup will be available on ESPN2 and Notre Dame Radio Network.