Two of the Big East’s leading Coach of the Year candidates square off tonight as Rick Pitino brings his Louisville Cardinals to face Mike Brey and the Irish in South Bend.
Picked 7th in the pre-season conference poll, Notre Dame sits alone at No. 2 in the standings while Louisville is tied for third (the Cardinals were slotted at No. 8 pre-season along with scrappy Marquette).
Louisville is 2-3 in Big East road games this year after posting a sterling 12-6 mark over the previous two seasons. They’ve prevailed in three games by exactly one point since January 15 and are 4-2 in conference contests decided by five points or fewer.
A victory tonight would give Notre Dame its best 24-game start under Brey as well as mark the quickest calendar attainment of 20 wins in a season in program history (though that stat is skewed a bit by the increased number of games played over the last 20 seasons).
No. 15 Louisville at No. 7 Notre Dame
Notre Dame (19-4/8-3) – Have won five straight with three road conference losses (Syracuse, Marquette, St. John’s) and a loss in Louisville to Kentucky.
Louisville (18-5/7-3) – Have won three of five including a 2OT win at then #5 Connecticut on January 29. Louisville has lost to Drexel, Kentucky, at Villanova, at Providence and at Georgetown.
Tip-off: 7 PM (EST) ESPNU
Previous Meeting: The Irish dropped a double-overtime heart-breaker at Freedom Hall, 91-89 on February 17, 2010. It was Notre Dame’s final regular season loss prior to a six-game winning streak, berth in the Big East semi-finals, and elevation from outside-looking-in status, to a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Four Irish post defenders fouled out over the course of the 50-minute defeat last season as Louisville center Samardo Samuels dominated the action with 36 points (and 19 free throw attempts). Tim Abromaitis scored 29 points for the visitors in a contest that featured 17 ties and 21 lead changes.
Series history: Louisville leads the all-time series 16-9 including a 4-2 edge in Big East matchups. Neither the Cardinals nor the Irish have earned a conference win on the other’s home floor. Three of the six conference matchups have been decided in an overtime session though Louisville has lost its last two in South Bend by margins of 33 and 16 points, respectively. In Louisville’s last visit to South Bend, Notre Dame exploded for a 2009 90-57 victory over a Cardinals squad that later earned the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
NCAA Quality Wins:
Notre Dame: (Georgia, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Connecticut, St. John’s, Cincinnati, Marquette, at Pittsburgh)
Louisville: (Butler, UNLV, Marquette, St. John’s, West Virginia, at Connecticut 2OT).
Quote to Note: “They’re better defensively than they’ve been. They can hurt you so many different ways with their motion offense. We’ve had difficulty there in the past, even when we were the No. 1 (overall) seed in the country, we lost by (33). I’m hoping this will be a different year, a different team.” – Louisville coach Rick Pitino on the trip to South Bend.
Point Spread: Notre Dame -4
Notre Dame Starters and Key Contributors
- Forward: 6’8” 235-pound senior Tim Abromaitis: Poured in 29 points in 2OT loss at Louisville last February...Has scored 12 or fewer in eight of the team’s last nine outings after eight 20-plus point efforts through first 13 games…Grabbed eight boards and scored 10 points in Sunday's win vs. Rutgers…Abro has connected on 14 of 28 three-point shots in six home league games…Has proven to be less of a two-dribble offensive threat from the perimeter this season, and the backdoor flashes to the rim that helped define his 2010 breakout season have also been few and far between in 2011 conference action…Seemed to regain confidence in his shot in last outing vs. Rutgers, looking comfortable drilling a mid-range J off a textbook curl late in the contest...Irish are 13-1 when the senior gathers at least six rebounds.
- Forward: 6’8” 232-pound senior Tyrone Nash: Has corralled 28 boards during the team’s five-game winning streak…Irish are 11-0 when Nash scores 10 or more points this season and 12-0 when he shoots at least six free throws…Ball-handling skills will be put to the test tonight vs. Louisville’s pressure defense…The team’s most versatile defender will have another quality matchup Wednesday vs. forward Terrence Jennings…Shooting 66 percent (34-51) from the foul line in league play after connecting at a 73 percent clip (60 of 82) in non-conference action.
- Guard/Forward: 6’8” 219-pound senior Scott Martin: Has recently emerged as one of the chief decision-makers in the half-court offense…The senior has attempted 26 free throws (76.9 percent) during the current five-game winning streak after shooting just 18 total over the first six league contests…Hit on at least 50 percent of his field goal attempts in three of five during said streak while failing to do so in each of the prior five outings…Posted 14 points and three assists vs. one turnover against Rutgers Sunday; his cleanest game of the league season.
- Guard: 6’3” 203-pound senior Ben Hansbrough: The Big East's fourth leading scorer in conference games at 19.3 per contest…Has missed just nine free throws in 72 league attempts, four of which curiously occurred at DePaul last Thursday…Averaging 24 ppg over the last four outings and has scored 17 or more in eight of 11 league matchups…Turnover rate up a bit over the last three games (10 vs. 15 assists) since his sterling 6-assist/0-turnover effort in the comeback win vs. Marquette…Has attempted 43 free throws during current winning streak and played exactly 39 minutes in four of the five wins.
Inside the game: When the Irish don’t get an open look and the shot clock winds down, Hansbrough will tap his head, a screen-and-roll will ensue, and the 5th-year senior’s decision-making then determines the given possession’s fate.
- Forward: 6’8” 218-pound senior Carleton Scott: Has hit 17 of 36 shots (10 of 19 from long range) since returning from a hamstring injury – a five-game span that not coincidentally includes five consecutive victories…Notre Dame is 17-2 with Scott in the lineup this season…Suffers the occasional (and vexing) concentration issues on one-handed rebound attempts and open dunks that carom free…11 boards and 3 blocks vs. Rutgers were the back story in another Irish home victory…Has collected 35 boards in four starts since his return…A perfect 15-15 from the free throw line in Big East play this season (39-43 on the year)…Hit 39 of his first 56 shots inside the three-point line this season (pre-injury).
- Guard: 6’2” 173-pound freshman Eric Atkins: Noted by tonight’s opposing head coach Rick Pitino as a key component differentiating the 2011 Irish from last year’s squad (“They have great backup point guard play.)…Tossed one bad pass that resulted in two fouls shots with 4:50 remaining in the narrow escape over Rutgers on Sunday – notable in that it was his first turnover in more than 70 game minutes… Posted 34 assists vs. 15 turnovers in 11 league games to date…Has hit 20 of his last 24 free throw attempts and 12 of his last 16 shots from the floor…Court time has been reduced to 22 minutes per game over the last four contests after playing more than 37 minutes per game in Carleton Scott’s absence.
- Center/Forward: 6’9” 248-pound sophomore Jack Cooley: – Did not appear in the game’s final 29 minutes Sunday though the Irish held an 11-4 edge over the Scarlet Knights during Cooley’s four minutes on the court…Provides a spark and toughness when he enters the contest, especially at the Joyce Center as a fan favorite…A playing time increase of even five minutes per contest would allow Nash to avoid foul trouble and likely result in more defensive stops (and necessary hard fouls) in the lane.
- Guard/Forward: 6’5” 215-pound sophomore Joey Brooks: Should again see spot duty in the first half in relief of the Martin/Abromaitis/Scott trio.
Louisville starters and key reserves
Senior captain and leading scorer Preston Knowles is expected to return to the lineup after missing Saturday’s win vs. DePaul (hamstring). Knowles has struggled a bit in his last three road games, hitting 10 of 37 shots from the floor. A streaky, high-volume three-point shooter, he’s connected on just 13 of his last 47 shots from beyond the arc – a staggering number of attempts considering it spans just five games. (Knowles previously knocked down 11 of 18 from downtown in a two-game span vs. Villanova and Marquette)
Reigning Big East Player of the Week Peyton Siva keys the Card’s half-court attack. Reminiscent of Hansbrough in his ability to take defenders off the dribble, Siva single-handedly cut down Connecticut in Louisville’s 2OT upset of the Huskies in Storrs. The sophomore penetrator is not yet polished as an outside shooter, hitting just 28 percent of his three-point shots this season (including 1 for his last 11) and misfiring on 12 of his last 13 field goal attempts since the aforementioned win at UConn.
Siva can control a game off the dribble, and leads the Cardinals with 5.2 assists per night, twice dishing out 10 assists vs. two or fewer turnovers in home conference wins.
Junior transfer Chris Smith rounds out Pitino’s three-guard lineup. The younger brother of Denver Nuggets guard J.R. Smith, Chris has fared well vs. college heavyweights Kentucky, Villanova and West Virginia this season and, despite his 6’2” stature, proven a weapon on the glass, collecting 52 boards in 10 conference games. A judicious three-point shooter – a rarity at a Pitino-led program – Smith has connected on better than 46 percent of his 56 total three-point attempts.
Junior forward Terrence Jennings enters tonight’s contest on a three-game tear, scoring 44 points and grabbing 24 rebounds (12 offensive) in matchups with UConn, Georgetown and DePaul. The 6’9” 220-pound Jennings ranks second on the Cardinals with 5.7 boards per game while blocking an average of two shots per night – sixth in the conference.
Sophomore forward Stephen Van Treese has started eight of the Card’s last nine contests. The 6’9” Indianapolis native could play anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes tonight due to Pitino’s trademark deep bench. Louisville features 10 players averaging more than 15 minutes per game, though freshman center Gorgui Dieng (concussion) will not make the trip and sophomore forward and leading-rebounder (7.5 per game) Raheem Buckles won’t play with a broken finger.
Junior shooter Kyle Kuric (44 percent on 87 three-point attempts this season) and high-volume gunner Mike Marra (31 of 112 from down town) hold the key to tonight’s contest. Kuric has averaged 14 ppg over his last three, missing only nine of his last 24 field goal attempts.
If one or both shooters can dial it up consistently vs. Notre Dame’s 2-3 zone, the Irish will be forced to deal with the Cardinal’s quicker lineup on the perimeter.
Rick Pitino calls it his “Mother-in-Law” defense (constant pressure and harassment). The Cardinals will trap at half-court and on the wings (negating most instances of a Burn attack by the hosts, who still favor that approach at home after carving out a 3-4 possession lead).
They’ll occasionally press full-court after a made basket or sit back in a three-quarter court diamond zone, ready to attack on the second pass; and most of all, they’ll force the tempo with an abundance of three-point attempts and an increased pace even following Notre Dame buckets.
Notre Dame’s ability to occasionally switch to – and rebound from – its 2-3 zone has greatly improved its 40-minute defensive effort this winter. The result is the allowance of the occasional open three-point shot (especially after an extra pass) as the lesser of two evils, rather than matching up with quicker athletes on the perimeter...Louisville will be happy to oblige as the league’s most willing three-point shooting team.
(The Cardinals have attempted 564 three-point shots; 111 more than Notre Dame. The teams rank #1 and #2 in three-point shots made with 207 and 171, respectively.)
Tonight’s outcome will likely come down to Louisville’s ability to handle Hansbrough on his patented high screen-and-roll (and his personal adjustments to the Cardinals’ chosen defensive ploy), as well as the visitor’s penchant for reach-in fouls when they apply ball pressure.
Notre Dame has attempted 155 more free throws than have their visitors this evening, and an incredible 257 more than have their collective opponents (including nearly 100 more than 11 Big East foes). If Louisville places the Irish in a bonus situation early, it’s lights out for Pitino’s crew.
The former tends to come to fruition in South Bend.
Prediction: Notre Dame 74 Louisville 68
Season Predictions (vs. major conference opponents): 12-5; 10-6-1 against the spread.