The Colorado Buffaloes are undefeated in three warmup games to start the season. Those games were blowouts of Sacramento State and Louisiana-Monroe, and a grind-it-out effort against Seattle in which none of their shots were falling. Now, the Buffs will be truly tested against Notre Dame in the actual tournament part of the Legends Classic. If the Buffs win, they will play the winner of Texas and Northwestern (read: Texas) in the tournament final. These games are, by the way, in Brooklyn, which is the best place in the U.S. to play basketball.
Notre Dame is undefeated at 3-0, but like Colorado, they have only played easily winnable home games. Unlike Colorado, all those wins have been as effortless as Lucas Siewert’s jump shot, and in their common game against Seattle, the Irish won 92-49. Except for them taking care of business defensively and scoring 88 points per game while playing a slow pace, there isn’t much evidence about how good Notre Dame is. So let’s look at their past seasons, if only to scare you.
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In the past ten seasons, the Irish have spent significant time in the Top 25. In those ten seasons, four times they won over 25 games in a season, and I mention that only because those teams were led by Jack Cooley, Pat Connaughton or Luke Harangody. I mean, if you had teams of the greatest white players in program history, the Irish would destroy the Austin Dufault-led Buffs. They would probably challenge Duke for a little while before getting blown out, because you can only withstand so much J.J. Redick and Grayson Allen before all your fans and players are ejected for mean-spirited behavior.
Anyhow, the Irish have danced eight times in that decade. (I structured that sentence to place an image like this in your head, because media is powerful, my friends.) For a time, the Irish had a slew of high-seeded, high-profile teams face early exits in the Tournament, and that led to coach Mike Brey having a mixed reputation. Alas, that narrative has piped down quite a bit because of great success in recent years.
In case you weren’t nervous about tonight’s game — airing on ESPN2 at 5pm — the Irish have reached the Elite Eight the past two seasons. Led by Pat Connaughton (watch this!), Jerian Grant (watch this!), Demetrius Jackson (watch this!) and Zach Auguste (watch this!), the Irish caught fire on offense and had just enough defensive heroics to keep moving on. These teams were oh so good and oh so fun and we are oh so lucky all those awesome players are gone.
You can be a little nervous, but don’t go throwing up your stomach because you’re afraid Wesley Gordon will get posterized back to the second grade. I mean, he might, but it’s significantly less likely now that Notre Dame doesn’t have physical freaks at every position. V.J. Beachem can still throw it down and Rex Pflueger is a literal slam dunk champion, but it’s still less likely than before.
This Notre Dame team can do more than just dunk, though. The Irish play without a true center, run out five shooters at a time, and they knife through all that spacing for open shots everywhere. They lack size on defense, so they rely on frenetic defense and a bit of zone defense. Surprising it may be, but this may actually favor the Buffs, as they too lack size (but not rebounding) and are better suited to play small-ball opponents.
Notre Dame’s best player may be V.J. Beachem. The 6’8 senior is averaging nearly 20 points per game thus far, and he’s a very heady player and can create shots and score from anywhere on the floor. Tasked with defending him will likely be Xavier Johnson, who has struggled a bit early on and will need to step up defensively.
Notre Dame’s second scoring option — their 1B to Beachem’s 1A — is Bonzie Colson, he of an A+ basketball name. To compare Colson, the Buffs’ best basketball names are Namon Wright and Dominique Collier, who are both solid B’s. Colson has as unique of an offensive game as you’ll see, for the 6’5, 225-lbs. junior forward is burly and skilled enough to post up anyone, and he has the quickness and jump shot to score from everywhere else. The Buffs don’t match up well with him — no one does — but George King and Xavier Johnson probably have the best chance at defending him. Whoever does defend him will have to expend all energy boxing him, because even at 6’5, Colson is far and away their best rebounder.
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Notre Dame has never been known for their defense. Even if Colorado struggles to match up and gives up some points, there’s a fair chance the Buffs are able to outscore them, plain and simple.
Though the Buffs don’t have many bigs, they play much larger than they are and should take advantage of Notre Dame’s lack of size. Beachem isn’t particularly good at defense, so XJ and Gordon should be able to take him on the block or consistently drive past him. Colson is solid defensively, but Bryce Peters, Josh Fortune and even George King have more than enough quickness to get by him. Notre Dame’s starting point guard, Matt Farell, has had nightmares defending the effervescent Derrick White.
Not to be outdone, the Buffs stand to dominate the glass on both sides of the floor. Notre Dame has approximately one good rebounder, and that’s the aforementioned Bonzie Colson. If he’s boxed out, Notre Dame has no one to stop Wesley Gordon and Tory Miller from cleaning up the offensive glass en route to second chance buckets aplenty. The Irish could insert Lithuanian Martinas Geren, he of 18 rebounds per 40 minutes, but he sucks at everything besides rebounding and would get exposed everywhere else.
The Buffs stand the best chance of winning this game by dominating the boards, but they still have to force enough misses for this advantage to make due. They should be able to, so they should roll.
Prediction: Colorado 77, Notre Dame 69