Can the Fighting Irish enter the top-tier in the ACC after beating North Carolina on the road?
Top tier in the ACC means top-5 in the nation with Duke, Virginia, and Louisville all holding such rankings. North Carolina was expected to be in that mix as well, but the Fighting Irish seem to have unseated the Tar Heels for that first-contender spot.
Fittingly, Notre Dame got a hard-earned victory at the Dean Dome on Monday to reach 15-1 on the season. The win comes on the heels of a double-overtime win against Georgia Tech and has the Irish atop the ACC at 3-0.
The return of Jerian Grant has been the catalyst in South Bend. The prolific scorer sat out the second half of last season after being declared academically ineligible, but he’s returned this year to average 17.9 points per game.
Behind Grant, the Irish are one of the most effective offenses in the country, averaging over 80 points per game with their four-guard lineup. That unique approach by head coach Mike Brey has given opponents fits in the first half of the season and could be what propels the Irish into the conference’s elite group.
Grant joins undersized forward Pat Connaughton and sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson on the perimeter. With natural forward Zach Auguste playing center, they make up one of the smallest lineups in the ACC. Yet, it’s the Irish’s opponents who keep scoring less.
They’ve faced two of the tallest teams in the conference–Florida State and North Carolina–in the early going but forced both to resort to smaller lineups and play Notre Dame’s style. That’s because Grant and Jackson have been able to spread out defenses with their speed and take advantage of the wide open floor spacing, slicing their way into the lane and kicking out to a variety of shooters on the outside. The Irish shoot 40 percent from three as a team, which is higher than the single best 3-point shooter on four ACC teams.
There are disadvantages, though, to the unorthodox lineup. Opponents have dominated the Irish on the offensive glass and taken advantage with second-chance buckets often. Michigan State, Georgia Tech, and North Carolina averaged a whopping 20 offensive rebounds per game in those three contests, but the Irish found a way to win each.
So if Notre Dame keeps shooting at an alarming clip and the offensive boards don’t hurt them too often, can it break into the upper echelon of its new conference?
Enter Virginia, the Irish’s opponent Saturday and defending ACC champions. The Cavaliers will counter Notre Dame with a nearly opposite philosophy. They boast one of the best defenses in the country and slow down the game’s pace outside of an occasional, craftily selected, fastbreak opportunity. The offense will run through the low post even as guard Malcolm Brogdon provides plenty of outside scoring, and the defense will try to force Notre Dame to create shots with dribble penetration as opposed to cutters in the open court.
Regardless of who comes out victorious, Mike Brey will continue to champion the four-guard lineup. Like Virginia did last season en route to a surprising conference title, the Irish know they must lay claim to an identity within the ACC in order to breach the blue bloods. So far, they’ve been just small enough to surprise them.