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GAME THREAD: No. 4 WSU vs. No. 5 Notre Dame

Posted by Jeff Nusser on March 22, 2008

Cougars (25-8) vs. Fighting Irish (25-7)

Pepsi Center (Denver, Colo.), 3:40 p.m. PDT
TV: CBS

In the old Schoolhouse Rock song, they used to say that three was a magic number.

Well, when it comes to today’s contest between Notre Dame and Washington State, 52 will be the magic number. As in, 52 effective field goal percentage. That’s because the Fighting Irish haven’t lost a game all year when they top that number, while the Cougs are 21-3 when holding opponents below that number.

(Those three losses when holding the opponent under 52 eFG%? All to the same opponent. Thank goodness we will never, ever see those guys again.)

What’s usually the difference between getting above 52 and not? Three-point shooting. And that — not containing Luke Harangody — will be the key today. (So I guess, in a way, 3 still is a magic number.)

Because Harangody (right) is the Big East player of the year and creates matchup problems galore for most teams with his strength and agility, most people will point to shutting him down as the key today for the Cougs. That’s simply not true.

I’ve isolated Harangody’s performances in the seven losses for the Irish, which you can see for yourself here, but here’s the gist: By every statistical measure other than assists and turnovers, he actually exceeded his season averages in those losses. His two best performances of the year in terms of points were 40 against Louisville and 32 against UConn … Notre Dame’s last two losses.

So while the Cougs of course will want to try and contain Harangody, focusing on him would largely be a mistake if it comes at the expense of keeping the Irish from shooting the 3 effectively.

Nowhere is that more clear than in the performance of Kyle McAlarney, one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in the country. McAlarney has taken nearly 250 3-point attempts this year and makes more than 44 percent of them; the only guy who comes close to that for WSU is Derrick Low, who has shot 221 but makes just under 40 percent. If we revisit that spreadsheet, you’ll see that McAlarney has performed significantly worse in virtually all of the Notre Dame losses than he did in the wins. His points scored is nearly five points lower than in the wins, thanks mostly to poorer 3-point shooting — just 27.7 percent in the losses vs. 48.9 percent in the wins, on fewer attempts.

The stats simply don’t lie: Stop McAlarney, and stop the other 3-point shooters such as Ryan Ayers (45.8 percent) and Rob Kurz (40.2 percent), and you’ve got your best chance of stopping the Irish. The only loss in which Notre Dame shot the 3 well was against Louisville, but the Cardinals’ 78 possessions and 32 trips to the free throw line in that game don’t seem likely to be repeated by the Cougs. Stop … the … 3.

People will also say the Cougs should try and keep the tempo low, keep Notre Dame from running — after all, the Cougs average 59.1 possessions while Notre Dame averages 71.1, and it would seem to make logical sense that holding the Irish under that number would be beneficial. But again, the statistics don’t really back that up as a sound strategy. In fact, the opposite might be true.

Revisiting that spreadsheet once again, it appears the Notre Dame offense takes no hit whatsoever from a slower tempo, performing slightly better. And — get this — the Irish defense actually performs significantly better in a slower game. Only two of their seven losses have come in games where the opponent held them under their season average in tempo.

Does that necessarily spell doom for the Cougs? No, because it’s mostly inferior teams that have tried to slow the Irish down, and the only very inferior teams have tried to slow down them to the extent the Cougs will. But what that does tell us is that it’s quite possible the Irish just don’t play that good of defense when teams try to push the ball a little bit. It might behoove the Cougs to take their transition opportunities a bit more than usual when they present themselves — just don’t forget who you are.

This is going to be a close game. I’d like to see the Cougs single-up Harangody and do everything possible to keep point guard Torey Jackson from penetrating and kicking out. Stay home with the shooters, take the transition opportunities when they present themselves, and we should be booking our tickets for North Carolina.

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14 Responses to “GAME THREAD: No. 4 WSU vs. No. 5 Notre Dame”

  1. Good luck tonight.

  2. drpezz said

    I sure hope Baynes stays out of foul trouble! If WSU can keep Harangody off the offensive boards and limit the dribble drive, I think the Cougs should win by 7-10. There is no doubt that Notre Dame can fill the hole from outside, but I do think WSU can contain it.

    Let’s see a full game of defense today! Well, that and few turnovers by the Coug offense.

  3. Mike said

    I’m nervous on this one! I’m just hoping we get the same officiating we received the other day. If they let us play, I think Weaver’s lock down defense and Baynes staying out of foul trouble will be enough to get it done.

    GO COUGS!!!!

  4. Nuss said

    I hate to say I told you so, but four transition points for the Cougs already. Great, great start — excellent defense!

  5. Nuss said

    11-2 run. I love what I see so far. They’re pushing the tempo when it’s available, but making Notre Dame work when it’s not. Harangody hasn’t gotten any clean looks, and McAlarney hasn’t gotten any clean 3s. Just one double on ‘Gody — I love only doing it occasionally. Mix it up. Oh, and Low hitting a couple of midrange jumpers. Somewhere, Jo~Jo is smiling.

  6. Nuss said

    Offense has gotten just a little bit stale, but still up 8 with four minutes to go in the half. Baynes wouldn’t be sitting on the bench right now if he hadn’t picked up his first foul 25 feet from the basket. (Sigh.) But I still like what I see right now. The seniors definitely all came to play. It’s like they’ve been waiting for this moment since the end of the Vandy game. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen Low so amped up. That amping would be better if he wasn’t 0-for-3 from 3, but I like the fact that he’s continuing to be aggressive.

  7. Nuss said

    What a first half!

    We are controlling the tempo, Notre Dame is getting zero transition opportunities and the Irish are just 1-for-8 from 3 — zero for their last seven. The offense went a little bit stale for the last five minutes or so, but we were able to hit a few jumpers to stay alive.

    I’m a little concerned with the rebounds we’re giving up on the defensive end right now, but it doesn’t seem to be killing us yet. That’s to be expected to a degree with Baynes on the bench. We should be able to shore that up if he can play about 15 minutes or the rest of the way.

    Honestly, the only thing I can think about right now is Vandy last year. This is how the first half went against the Commodores, only to have them shoot their way back into it. The seniors are going to have to continue to do what they’re doing. Let them edge their way back into it with 2s, but don’t let them sprint back into it with 3s.

    20 minutes from North Carolina! Let’s go!

  8. Nuss said

    Gotta be smart right now. Don’t get suckered into that frenetic pace Notre Dame wants to play at.

  9. Nuss said

    Ladies and gentlemen, 52-32, under eight minutes to go … I believe we just punched our ticket to the Sweet Sixteen.

    Now, overplay every 3, let them 2 themselves back into this game.

  10. Alan said

    nice write-up nuss. i liked that bit about harangody.
    it looks like the cougs are killing ND’s shooting %. they really look out of rhythm on both sides of the ball. the worry right now is that the big guys have quite a few fouls (that cheap one on baynes in the first was a killer). if the cougs have to go small, harangody will get a lot more touches inside.

  11. Alan said

    whoa.. he almost said washington huskies on the mmod online…

  12. Nuss said

    Empty the bench. Get out the cigars! North Carlina, here we come!

  13. Jo~Jo said

    What if it’s not UNC?

  14. Nuss said

    We’re going to North Carolina anyway, since the regional is in Charlotte. But if it’s not UNC, I’m doing backflips, because the only team that can beat us right now is one that can physically overwhelm us AND play great team basketball. There are only about three or four teams in the tournament that can do that on a given night.

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