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Is Notre Dame Capable of Knocking off Kentucky?

by Photo of Tommy Dee

Boasting the nation’s top offense and fresh off their ACC Tournament title, are the Irish the Kentucky’s biggest threat?

Is Notre Dame Capable of Knocking off Kentucky?

School: University of Notre Dame
Conference: ACC
Head Coach: Mike Brey 
Key Players: Jerian Grant, Sr. PG, Pat Connaughton, Sr. F

"In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing."- 

Theodore Roosevelt

When Mike Brey and Notre Dame made the decision to dismiss then junior guard Jerian Grant for conduct that was detrimental to the team last season, you'd think he knew it would put them at the crossroads of what Notre Dame's success would ultimately be for the 2014-15 season. The result of the decision? A 28-win season and an ACC Tournament Championship in just the school's second year in the conference. 

Grant, his do-it-all quarterback, has bounced back after some soul searching to lead the Irish to an ACC Championship and a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He's also the leader of the nation's number one total offense, which has all the ingredients to knock off the #1 seed in their respective region and the entire tournament, the Kentucky Wildcats. 

How dangerous are the Irish offensively? According to Sports-Reference.com they lead the nation in overall offensive rating at 121.3. They are second in the nation in overall field goal percentage at 51% and are shooting a nation's best 58% from inside the three point line. They've adopted a spread-style offense that would force Kentucky's bigs away from the rim, potentially giving them fits from the perimeter. It's a tall task for sure, and there's a few strong opponents that sit in front of them including-second seeded Kansas, but with senior leadership from the dynamic Grant and forward Pat Connaughton combined with a young core unafraid of the spotlight, it appears the Irish and Wildcats are on a collision course for the Regional Final in Cleveland.

Quote Worthy:

The most dazzling characteristic of this group is its ability to pass and shoot – they can be a very pretty basketball team that way. But the hard edge that Grant and Connaughton in particular possess is tangible. Basketball coaches have a phrase for it, one that cannot be repeated on a family website, but it applies to both those guys.Grant will take over a game offensively, demanding the ball, posting up, driving, orchestrating. Connaughton will take any and every big shot – but he’s also willing to hurl his body around with reckless disregard for his million-dollar pitching arm. (His professional future lies in baseball, not basketball.) They set the toughness tone.- Pat Forde, Yahoo Sports

The Numbers: Sports-Reference.com

Record: 29-5 (ACC Tournament Champions)
Offensive Rating: 121.3 (1st in Nation)
Defensive Rating: 101.6 (166th)
Simple Rating: 19.35 (13th up 11.16 from 2013-14) 

Xs and Os Breakdown: Jerian Grant

How big has Grant's play both with and off the ball been to the success of the Irish? Look no further than the team's "Simple Rating" this year verses last year. I'm not all too qualified to talk profoundly about SRS, other than to say it basically calculates how many points you've been better than the sum of of your opponents, so read more about it here.   I can say that last year the Irish, who suspended Grant in late December, managed an 8.19 SRS good for 72nd in Division-1. That number skyrocketed this year to 19.35, good for 13th in all of D-1.

On or off the ball, Grant attacks gaps, open lanes and blocks putting constant pressure on the defense. He's fearless on drives, which causes defensive reactions, which can get bigs into foul trouble because it forces contact and help. If Notre Dame wants to get all the way to a match-up with the Wildcats they'll need to lean on this. As a team they've learned to drive and attack for 40 minutes rather than relying on the perimeter. The combination of both is what makes them so lethal.

 

Notre Dame utilizes pick and roll so efficiently allowing for Grant to start attacking the rim with momentum. Here Jahlil Okafor of Duke has no chance in stopping Grant's assertiveness and is forced to put up little resistance. 

Here, Okafor does a great job of stopping Grant's penetration but he creates so much attention that the back door is left wide open for a beautiful find and easy half court lay up.

Because Notre Dame balances the floor so well with space to the perimeter, Grant can attack and kick at will. This forces the defense to make a decision to stop the drive allowing for a rhythm three, or let the drive continue while defending the perimeter. Miami decides to guard the perimeter and that choice leads to a easy hoop in a tight game late. 

Conclusion:

Every successful basketball coach will tell you that they always only focus on the task and team in front of them. There's no margin for error at this level and you simple cannot allow your team to lose focus in the present. Notre Dame has a challenge in Northeastern and also has some serious talent in their region with the likes of Kansas, Wichita State and Butler. But if there's a team capable of knocking off the undefeated Wildcats, and breaking the heart of their dynamic super fan at the same time, I believe it's Notre Dame. Their combined speed and athleticism to attack off the bounce, paired with their ability to space the floor, is the exact recipe for an upset many fans of college basketball are desperately looking for.

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