And Down The Stretch They Come

On Saturday in South Bend, Marquette and Notre Dame will face off for the second time this season, each looking to build on recent momentum to secure a post season tournament birth.

On Saturday in South Bend, Marquette and Notre Dame will face off for the second time this season, each looking to build on recent momentum to secure a post season tournament birth. That is where the similarities end for these long-time rivals, who have been among the biggest surprises in the Big East for very different reasons. Picked 12th in the preseason coaches poll, MU wants to remove any doubt about a potential bid to the NCAA tournament, while the veteran Fightin' Irish squad hopes to salvage what looked like a lost season just two weeks ago by qualifying for the Big East tournament.

The Marquette program took a giant leap forward last week, beating two nationally-ranked conference foes at the Bradley Center. The victories over Georgetown and Pittsburgh moved the Golden Eagles to an impressive 18-8 overall, 8-5 in the Big East. Notre Dame enters the game at 13-11 overall and 4-9 in the Big East.

The Irish have won three of their last four since opening the conference sason a dismal 1-8. No team in recent memory has endured such a decided disadvantage in close games. Including the overtime loss at UConn on Monday night, the Irish are an underwhelming 0-6 in conference games decided by three points or less and have lost nine conference games by a combined 28 points. Notre Dame's struggles in close games is baffling given their tremendous guard play, led by senior Chris Quinn and junior marksman Colin Falls. The pair averages better than 33ppg combined, and the reliable Quinn leads the Big East in assists at more than six per game. Quinn has scored in double figures in every game this season.

At 4-9 in conference play, the Irish are in danger of missing the Big East tournament next month. Notre Dame closes the season with two of their last three games at home. With talented seniors like Quinn, Torin Francis and Rick Cornett, the Irish figure to be a tough out down the stretch.

Given the Irish's improved play and hunger to avoid the humiliation of missing the Big East tournament, Marquette coach Tom Crean undoubtedly took advantage of the full week of preparation leading up to this game. However, as the disappointing road loss at Rutgers proved, a full week of rest and practice might not be a decided advantage for the surging Golden Eagles. Assured of a non-losing conference record, the Golden Eagles close with two of their last three on the road, where they've won just twice in conference play. Marquette has not won a conference road game since topping DePaul on January 17.

MU's offense, built around controlled fastbreaks and dribble penetration, must be efficient to bring home a road win. Prone to turnovers and poor defensive rebounding for much of the season, MU averaged just 11.5 turnovers in their last two wins, and successfully limited second chance opportunities to the bigger, more physical Hoyas and Panthers. Now faced with back to back road games, these breakthrough performances bode well for Marquette down the stretch.

Steve Novak, averaging 20ppg in Big East action, will be the center of attention for the Irish defense. Novak, just six made 3-pointers away from eclipsing Ray Allen's single-season Big East record, delivered the most memorable shot of the season for MU in the first meeting with Notre Dame, an off-balance basket in the closing seconds that lifted the Golden Eagles to a 67-65 win. Novak led MU with 27 points in the victory. MU is 6-0 when Novak scores 20 or more points in conference play, but only two of those outings have come on the road. The last time Novak rang up at least 20 points on the road was the win at DePaul.

Can Steve Novak make it to the 'magical' 20 point mark on Saturday? Novak is a tough matchup for the Irish, who often landed up with 6'1" Kyle McAlarney on the 6'10" shooter in key spots during the first meeting. Russell Carter, who played only one minute against MU in Milwaukee, figures to draw Novak this time around. Since the first MU tilt, the 6'4" Carter has emerged as a steady contributor for Mike Brey. Dominic James and Jerel McNeal's ability to drive and dish to Novak, Chapman and Matthews should create open looks for MU's shooters.

Defensively, the addition of Matthews provides the Golden Eagles with another defensive option for the lethal Falls, who lit up MU for 21 points back in January. While Matthews' return strengthens MU's backcourt, the absence of Jamil Lott and Mike Kinsella in the frontcourt will mean a heavier burden for Ousmane Barro, Ryan Amoroso, and Dwight Burke as they look to slow down Francis and Cornett.

**Note: Article for by Tim Blair or Cracked Sidewalks, the Marquette Basketball blog Cracked Sidewalks

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