NOTRE DAME FIGHTING IRISH (21-5, 11-3)
Time: 7 p.m.
Location: Freedom Hall: Louisville, Ky.
Favorite: Louisville by 8
All-Time Series: Louisville leads 13-8
Last Meeting: Notre Dame won 78-62 on 1/3/07
Probable Starting Lineup
G Tory Jackson.....8.5 ppg
G Kyle McAlarney...15.7 ppg
F Rob Kurz...........12.4 ppg
F Zach Hillesland...5.6 ppg
F Luke Harangody..20.2 ppg
It might be the last day of February, but tonight's game between Louisville and Notre Dame figures to be every bit as intense as a tilt in late March.
The Irish come in having won eight out of their last nine, while U of L is a perfect 7-0 in February. Both teams are battling to keep pace with Georgetown in the race for the Big East regular season title, and both are also looking to put themselves in better position to grab a desirable seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Notre Dame is the Big East's most talented offensive team. The Irish lead the conference in scoring (80.8 ppg), three-point field goal percentage (40.9%), three-pointers made (8.13 per game), free-throw percentage (74%), rebounding margin (+7.5) and assists (18.5 per game).
Louisville, conversely, is fourth in the nation in field goal percentage defense, holding opponents to just 37.5% from the floor. The Cards rank second in the league in scoring defense (60.5 ppg), and third in three-point percentage defense (30.3%).
Notre Dame is averaging 85.1 ppg over its last nine games, and hasn't been held under 64 points all season. But at home, Louisville is holding Big East opponents to just 53 ppg, and hasn't allowed anyone to score more than 58.
I promised myself that I wouldn't use the phrase "something's gotta give" in this post, so, uh, one side must see its impressive statistics slightly tarnished. Because that flows just as well.
The worst kept secret in college basketball is that Luke Harangody is going to be named Big East Player of the Year in a few weeks. The guy who looks so impressive during warm-ups that you might seriously consider taking him third or fourth at a YMCA pick-up game is averaging 20.2 points and 10.5 rebounds, and has recorded eight double-doubles in Notre Dame's last nine games. He's a terrific finisher around the basket whose points come by way of a combination of put-backs, mid-range jumpers, and solid post moves.
One of Harangody's most underappreciated qualities is his ability to get opposing big men into foul trouble, a trait that certainly goes hand-in-hand with his prowess at snagging offensive rebounds. He's attempted a whopping 168 free-throws, connecting on 130 (77.4%) of them. He's also generally been able to avoid getting into foul trouble himself, accumulating five in just one game this year (Georgetown), and keeping his minutes played average just under 30.
Like David Padgett, Harangody is also a highly capable passer, a skill that comes in handy when you have a player like Kyle McAlarney roaming around the perimeter. McAlarney has knocked down at least one three-pointer in all 26 games he's played in, and is coming off of a 30-point performance against Syracuse in which he drilled 9-of-11 attempts from beyond the arc. He is the league's best three-point shooter in terms of both percentage (46.4) and shots made (90).
Last season in South Bend, the Irish had zero trouble with Louisville's pressure, and scored bucket after bucket in transition on their way to a blowout victory. Mike Brey has made no bones about the fact that his team is going to try and push tempo again this evening.
"What we did last year against their press is we broke pressure to score," said Brey. "That got us going, and we were successful. We have to remember to try and do that down there."
McAlarney - who played point guard up until this season - will be largely called upon to help with the press-breaking, but the guy who's going to be doing most of the heavy lifting is sophomore floor general Tory Jackson. He's about as quick a guard as there is in the league, and he'll certainly put Andre McGee's newfound dedication to defense to the test. Jackson's bugaboo for most of the season, however, has been turnovers. While he's done a better job of taking care of the ball recently, he's still averaging 3.4 give-aways a game, and turned it over seven times against Georgetown's pressure D.
With turnovers taken out of the equation, Jackson's stat line sparkles. He's handing out six assists a game, has made 52 steals, and at 5-foot-11, he's averaging 5.2 rebounds. And if that wasn't enough, he's beginning to find his stroke from the outside. Just a 27.7% three-point shooter on the season, Jackson has suddenly connected on seven of his last 13 from deep, making him yet another guy Louisville can't afford to lose outside the arc.
Two more guys that the Cards would be foolish not to mark are reserve forwards Ryan Ayers and Luke Zeller. At 6-8, Ayers is as close to an athletic big man as the Irish have. While he's made big strides in his all-around game this year, he's still most dangerous from outside, where he's hit 43-of-96 attempts (44.8%). Less versatile is the 6-10 Zeller, who has attempted 68 of his 107 shots from beyond the arc. He generally checks into the game and gets one wide open look from three before his opponents realize that's the enormous white guy who can shoot.
Also able to hit from the outside is forward Rob Kurz, the team's lone senior. Though his final collegiate season has been largely overshadowed by Harangody and McAlarney, Kurz has quietly strung together an extremely productive year, averaging 12.4 points and 7.7 rebounds. He's hit 28-of-72 (38.9%) three-point attempts, and leads the team in both blocks (37) and free-throw percentage (85.6%).
Rounding out the starting lineup is junior forward Zach Hillesland, a guy who averages just over 20 minutes a game, but still manages to pull down around five boards a night. At 6-9, he's a capable scorer around the basket, but not much of a threat from outside 15-feet. His primary role on the team is to crash the boards, defend, and finish if he's left all alone around the tin.
Rick Pitino said on Wednesday that Louisville was not going to shy away from a fast-paced game, and I think that's the right approach. If Mike Brey thinks his team can have success in transition because of what it was able to do to the Cards 14 months ago, then I think he might be in for a rude awakening. That U of L team is long-gone, a bad dream that's only half-remembered by the time you've finished brushing your teeth.
As far as defense goes, I think you're going to see Louisville go zone after makes and man after misses in the first half, and then adjust accordingly after the break. Pitino will then either stick with what's working if the score dictates it, or switch predominantly to whichever style was more effective in the opening 20 minutes.
The importance of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark's play in the back of the 2-3 cannot be overstated. Each has to be going full tilt every second they're on the floor, sprinting out to cover shooters on the wings, and then sprinting back to either rebound or prevent Harangody from catching the ball in a position to score. If Clark plays as lethargically as he did against Pittsburgh, then we're going to lose, take it to the ATM on a Sunday morning.
This isn't a game where we can afford to have our bigs get into foul trouble (DERRICK! I'm up here!), both because Notre Dame shoots free-throws so well, and because Terrance Farley's effectiveness is extremely limited in a run-and-gun pace. David Padgett needs to get his hands on a lot of rebounds. He doesn't necessarily have to grab all of them (although that would certainly be preferable), he just needs to tip them away from Harangody and Kurz so that Williams or Clark can cradle them and then start the break. This could be one of those nights where David finishes with six and five and still has a hell of a night simply because he did all those little David Padgett things.
I really feel like this is a game where Andre McGee could shine. We've got to have his defensive pressure, because taking advantage of those six or eight points that Notre Dame puts on the table could easily be the difference between winning and losing. If the Irish do employ a sagging zone (and they likely will, at least to open the game) then he's probably also going to get his fair share of quality outside looks. The return of Hartford/Jackson State Andre would be welcomed.
The shot selection spiel has now officially been used more than (slutty girl joke), but if Notre Dame is going to - for the most part - surrender the outside shot, then Louisville has to take and make the right ones. Jerry needs to get himself open and then pull the trigger when he's able, and T-Will and Earl both have to ward off temptation if it isn't their night. Edgar hitting his first jump shot would be a good sign.
Louisville's superior depth also figures to play a large role, especially if the officiating crew of Bob Donato, Mike Stuart and Joe Lindsay (who I assume are going to be pretty good since I've only heard of one of them) get a little loose with their whistles. If the Irish want to run then U of L is going to come at them in waves. Sosa will have his opportunities on the break, and we can only hope he handles them as well as he did on Sunday.
The other major factor is Freedom Hall. Notre Dame has recently been able to shake the reputation of a team that can't win on the road, but not one of their three victories away from the Joyce Center could possibly be referred to as "quality." The Irish haven't had to play in an environment as hostile as the one they're going to face tonight, and I think there are still some concerns in South Bend over how they'll deal with that.
CC Prediction: Louisville 82, Notre Dame 77
The Irish are going to hit their outside shots, but we have to make sure that every one that goes down is one of those where all you can do is shrug because the guy buried it with a man all over him. They're the best rebounding team in the conference, but minimizing second-chance opportunities is key. Officials are twice as likely to call a foul after the initial shot as they are before it, and Notre Dame's bigs shoot free-throws too well to let them live at the line. Also, our guys tend to get a little "pushy" when a shot is on the way, and if that gets called early then maybe we should go ahead and just work a little harder to be in proper position.
We can't win this one 62-56. We've got to get as many points off of turnovers and fast breaks as we can, and then hope that it's a good shooting night when they settle into their zone.
Get up people. This one's a biggie.