January 09, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) No. 13 Notre Dame believes it has something to prove even though the Fighting Irish are off to their best start in four decades - especially against No. 3 Virginia on Saturday.

The Cavaliers (14-0, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) manhandled Notre Dame (15-1, 3-0) twice last season, beating the Irish 68-53 in South Bend and 75-46 in Charlottesville.

''They owned us. We had no answers for Virginia,'' Irish coach Mike Brey said. ''It was like a JV versus a varsity. They put it on us twice. It was the one team in the league we weren't competitive with.''

Pat Connaughton said a win against Virginia would be the biggest yet for the Irish, who already beat Michigan State and at No. 18 North Carolina.

''They're one of the last three undefeated teams and they're one of the teams that kept it a little uncompetitive against us last year,'' he said.

The Irish have won their last five games against Top 10 teams at Purcell Pavilion, including a shocking 79-77 upset of No. 7 Duke in one of the few bright spots last season as the Irish finished the season 15-17 - their only losing season in 14 seasons under Brey.

''We want to show that we're a different team than we were last year,'' Connaughton said.

The biggest differences for the Irish this season have been the return of Jerian Grant, the emergence of Demetrius Jackson and an improved defense. Grant, who was dismissed from school last December for an undisclosed academic violation, is averaging 17.3 points and 6.3 assists a game is involved in almost everything the Irish do offensively.

''He is just such a playmaker for us,'' Brey said.

Jackson, who averaged 6 points a game last season for the Irish, is averaging 14.3 points this season and keys the defense by pressuring the ball handler.

''We're able to get key stops in crunch time,'' Brey said. ''We've done it in close games, starting with the Michigan State game. That's been a trait of ours and I hope we can ride it another two months.''

Notre Dame leads the nation in shooting, making 54.8 percent of its shots, and is third in scoring at 85 points a game. The Cavaliers are second in the nation in shooting defense, allowing opponents to make only 33.9 percent of their field goals, and points allowed at 50.8 points a game.

''It's a great matchup. There a great buzz about it,'' Brey said. ''I'm really thrilled we're in a position to make this a big game. We've come such a long way from last year.''

Virginia is off to its best start since the 1980-81 squad led by Ralph Sampson started 23-0. That year's team was beaten by the 11th-ranked Irish 57-56 in suburban Chicago - Notre Dame's only victory in eight tries against the Cavaliers.

''We're going to have to make some jump shots to make them respect that and maybe open the floor for some drives,'' Brey said. ''You can't just put your head down and go.''

Brey said a win over the Cavaliers would be big for Notre Dame's confidence.

''It would be another huge step forward for us,'' Brey said.

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