Notre Dame (25-1, 13-0 ACC) has been simply dominant since joining the ACC for the 2013-14 season. Since joining the conference ND is 51-1 against conference foes. FSU (21-5, 11-2 ACC) has not fared well against the Irish as the Noles are 0-4 against ND including a 71-58 loss in their last meeting on March 8, 2015 in the ACC Championship Game.
The fact that they have been able to maintain such a high quality of play is a tribute to Notre Dame's resiliency because outside of the stellar record this year hasn't exactly gone as planned for the Irish. Soon after Notre Dame's loss in the Championship Game to Connecticut last year All-American guard Jewell Loyd announced that she was foregoing her final year of eligibility to make herself available for the WNBA Draft (she was picked 1st overall). Her decision was not exactly well received in the Notre Dame family. Remember, in women's basketball the vast majority of players stay for four years so Loyd's departure was a bit of a shock.
Soon after the season started the Irish received another shock as starting forward Taya Reimer left the team after five games due to undisclosed personal reasons. Reimer had been named a captain before the season and was ND's fourth leading scorer and second leading rebounder last year. In the face of these two unexpected defections you would be forgiven for assuming that there would be a bit of a dropoff but that obviously hasn't happened. It seems that the Irish have been able to cope just fine with the seven McDonald's All-Americans left on their roster.
ND is loaded with talent but only seven players get more than 13 minutes a game and five them are guards. The Irish feature a balanced offense with four players averaging in double figures and no player averaging 15 points a game. This means that the Noles can't afford to focus too much on one player. However, Notre Dame is led by All-America candidates junior point guard Lindsay Allen and sophomore forward Brianna Turner. Allen is the rare superstar guard that doesn't shoot threes (7-24 for the season). In fact, Allen isn't a volume scorer averaging 9.1 points a game. However she has great value because she runs the Irish offense to perfection. Turner (14.2pts, 7.0reb) is simply one of the best post players in the nation. She is an excellent rebounder and she anchors the defense with elite rim protection as she averages nearly 3.5 blocks a game. She has really stepped up in the absence of Reimer.
ND's offense is dominated by their backcourt and that is due in large part to 5th year senior Madison Cable (13.5pts, 5.8reb), freshman Arike Ogunbowale (12pts, 3.5reb), and the Mabrey sisters freshman Marina (11.4pts, 3reb) and senior Michaela (6.8pts, 1.6reb). Cable (54-115 3pt), Michaela (47-120 3pt) and Marina (27-62 3pt) are Notre Dame's primary three point shooting threats.
Overall, the Irish rank third in the nation in FG% (.494), fourth in 3FG% (.406), and ninth in scoring offense (80.5ppg). They are also stellar defensively as teams only shoot .369 FG% and only .289 3FG% against them. In addition they rebound well despite being relatively thin in the frontcourt as they outrebound their opponents by 5.4 rebounds a game.
This will likely be the second toughest game FSU will play in the regular season (in Connecticut being the first) but the Noles catch a massive break getting the Irish at home. Florida State plays much better in Tallahassee and they will need every bit of that home cooking to get this win. However, it is doable.
Here are some keys to the game.
1. The Seminoles must attack ND's two best players, Allen and Turner. They are the only two players on the roster who are irreplaceable. If either one gets in foul trouble FSU's chances will increase greatly. Also, FSU wants both players to expend energy on defense so that they can't just concentrate on offense. This means Adut Bulgak and especially Leticia Romero must be aggressive from the opening tip in this game.
2. FSU must rebound the ball. Fortunately the Noles are one of the best rebounding teams in the nation but FSU must hold the Irish to one and done as much as possible.
3. FSU can't turn the ball over. Fewer than 15 should be the goal (FSU averages 17.6 turnovers per game).
4. Shakayla Thomas needs to be Weapon X in this game. Ogunbowale is the only player on ND's roster that is even close to matching Thomas' athleticism and at 5'8 Ogunbowale is probably too small to stick with Thomas on a consistent basis. It's hard to see FSU getting this win without Thomas having a big game.
5. FSU can't afford to have the defensive lapses that have plagued them in previous losses. ND will take advantage of any opening. Allen and especially Ogunbowale must be kept out of the lane. FSU has had issues defending the dribble drive lately. That needs to get fixed before Monday.
After dropping the game in Syracuse, Florida State sits in third place in the ACC. The Noles will fall to fourth with a loss on Monday. Being in the top 4 is critical to get the double bye in the ACC Tournament. This game is also very important for FSU's NCAA Tournament seeding. If they lose this game FSU will probably be projected to be on the four line. If they win the Noles could rise as high as a second seed in the next projection but I think that they would stay on the three line (where they currently sit). Earning a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament is important because that guarantees the Seminoles home games in the first two rounds of the Tournament.
The game is on Monday, February 22 at 7pm in the TLCCC. ESPN 2 will televise the game as part of Big Monday. Sagarin has Notre Dame as 3.5 point favorites.