For the second year in a row, Iowa State is heading east for the NCAA tournament. This year’s opening round draw is seventh seeded Notre Dame out of the Big East conference. Notre Dame finished the season at 25-9 and were 11-7 in the very good Big East. The Irish provide a very good challenge for an Iowa State team that has struggled with size this season. Much like Iowa State, they don’t have a single standout go-to player. The Irish win with their balance, efficiency and rebounding. Let’s break it down.
Notre Dame is led in the guard court by 6-5 Junior Jerian Grant. The shooting guard leads the Irish in scoring at a shade over 13 points per game. He can do a variety of things to score, comfortable slashing to the rim and also spotting up from the perimeter – his game compares to K-State’s Rodney McGruder. Grant shot a pedestrian 40 percent from the floor this season and 35 percent from deep. But he has been much better as the season has progressed, scoring in double figures in 15 of his last 17 Big East games. He is also a dangerous passer when he gets into the paint, kicking to the wing and corners for threes. Expect Grant to get the Babb treatment on Friday.
The Notre Dame point guard is 6-foot-2 Junior Eric Atkins. He is a very steady leader and almost never leaves the floor. Atkins is their third leading scorer at 11.4 points per game. He is strong with the ball and a very competent shooter as well. He is 2nd in the Big East in 3-point percentage at 44 percent and gets a lot of looks off of offensive rebounds or Grant kick-outs. Atkins is 4th in the Big East in assists at almost six per game and possesses a salty 2.7:1 assist/turnover ratio. It is easy to forget about Atkins as he isn’t the flashiest player and doesn’t often look for his own shot, but if you leave him open, he can kill you. Likely that Korie Lucious gets the assignment on Atkins.
The third guard is 6-5 sophomore sharp-shooter Pat Connaughton. Connaughton is their 3-point specialist. Sixty percent of his shots come from deep. They love to put him in a corner and find him with good floor spacing. Connaughton went through a miserable slump during the middle of conference play (7-41 from three point land over an eight game stretch) but he has been on a tear of late, knocking down 15 treys in three games during the Big East Tournament. On the season, he leads them in 3-point makes, but is a modest 32 percent from downtown. He is a mediocre ball-handler and pressure can get to him. Look for Will Clyburn to match-up with Connaughton on the Notre Dame end.
The headliner for Notre Dame in the paint is 6-9 Senior Jack Cooley. He has carried the Luke Harangody, bulky Irish forward torch. At 245 pounds, he is one of the most active and physical big men in the nation. He leads the Big East in rebounding at over 10 per game. He is especially lethal on the offensive glass, ripping down over four per contest. Cooley is not overly skilled, but gets a lot of “dirty baskets.” His range is limited to about ten feet and in. He uses his size to establish great low position and gets several easy looks because of this. He averages a double-double with 13 points to go along with those ten rebounds. The Cyclones will obviously want to keep him away from the low block, once he gets down there, it is tough to move him. Georges Niang will probably get the tough challenge on Cooley, but expect the Cyclones to send several guys at him. It is a team responsibility to keep him in check.
The difficulty in defending Notre Dame inside is they also feature two other spacious bigs. Six-foot-10, 258 pound senior Tom Knight. And 6-10, 246 pound Senior Garrick Sherman. (Sherman actually played with Lucious at Michigan State before transferring to Notre Dame.) Both of these guys rotate at the post opposite Cooley and can make you pay on the glass. Neither have an array of post moves, however both are comfortable on the block and are not afraid to go right at a defense. Knight has been playing more of late and had a career high 18 points in a win over Rutgers in the Big East tournament. Getting a body on them is essential. Don’t expect the posts to attempt a shot outside 15 feet. But we have seen teams beat up Iowa State on the block over the course of the year.
I would expect to see a solid dose off the bench from freshman forward Cameron Biedscheid. He is slighter in size at 6-7, 190 pounds, but may match-up better with Iowa State’s quickness in the front-court. Biedscheid is much more comfortable shooting the three. He is a 31 percent 3-point shooter and almost 70 percent of his shots come from outside the arc.
The Irish will also bring 6-10 Freshman Zach Auguste off the pine. He is lightly used, but is an athletic post who can be a spark. He put up 15 points in a loss at Marquette earlier this season.
Inside the Game:
This will be a clash in styles between Iowa State’s quickness and Notre Dame’s size. Notre Dame likes to mix up their looks on the defensive end and they have shown a propensity to play zone throughout the year, but I would doubt they show much of it against the aerial assault that the Cyclones will throw at them. They are not very aggressive on defense (last in the Big East in steals) and instead are successful with solid position and great length.
Notre Dame prefers more of a half-court style and have been known to go into their “burn offense” where they suck the clock down and limit possessions with a lead. Despite their more modest tempo, this is still a very efficient offensive team at 46 percent shooting and they are extremely unselfish, which makes them tough to key on. They also rarely turn the ball over, Atkins and Grant are great ball-handlers who handle pressure with ease. Mike Brey is a great basketball mind and always has his team well-prepared. There is no Scott Drew factor for the Irish.
The number one key is going to be rebounding. Iowa State cannot let Notre Dame destroy them on the glass. If the Cyclones can hold their own in that area, this is going to be a very entertaining game and I like Iowa State’s chances. Another monster factor is the play of Korie Lucious. Notre Dame can struggle with the small, quick guards and if Lucious can get by his defender and into the paint that leaves wide open looks for Iowa State’s other weaponry.
Is it Friday yet?