Plenty of fight

The Fighting Irish have been on fire so far this season. And while No. 10 Butler, which Northwestern played last week, certainly goes down as a quality opponent, No. 23 Notre Dame may be just as good. Purple Reign previews the Wildcats' next opponent.

Friday's game at Notre Dame will be the second rugged early-season challenge for Northwestern. Like, really rugged.

From the looks of it, No. 23 Notre Dame, sitting at 5-0, is every bit as imposing as Butler, which downed NU last week by 13, 67-54. Through five games, Notre Dame's average margin of victory is 20.2 points, and its smallest victory has been by 18 points. The Irish are scoring 86.8 points per game and giving up just 66.6. They have five guys averaging at least 8.2 points, and three averaging at least 11.8.

The balance, the explosiveness on offense and the merciless poundings* ND has been handing out all season make this trek to South Bend a perilous one.

*One potential grievance with Notre Dame's season thus far – impressive as it may be – is its schedule. Which isn't impressive. The Irish have played North Florida, St. Francis, Long Beach State, Liberty and Kennesaw State. Hardly World Beaters. You can tell at a glance that that schedule is – to quote the again ubiquitous Dick Vitale – Cupcake City. But you can also try to quantify how lackluster it is.

Based on the Pomeroy Rankings**, which stand as one of the most in-depth (and confusing) ways of decoding basketball, Notre Dame currently has the No. 302-ranked schedule in the nation in terms of difficulty. There are only 347 teams in the rankings, so, yeah, Cupcake City.

Not that the Irish need to apologize for it – not at all, considering they will eventually be mired in their annual docket of Big East Conference games which, of course, is far, far from Cupcake City. (Northwestern, by the way, ranks 304 in the Pomeroy Rankings. NU's non-Butler opponents – Northern Illinois, Tennessee State and Liberty – are all have an overall rank of 247 or lower. Not that the Cats need to apologize for it…)

** While some things about the aforementioned Pomeroy Rankings are mind-numbingly confusing, there's one stat that isn't complicated: assists per field goal made, or what percent of a team's field goals come from assists. Well, in that category, NU ranks No. 1 in the nation, assisting on 79.1 percent of its field goals.

Let's start with Luke Harangody, who is in his 12th year at Notre Dame. OK, it's not really his twelfth year, but it does seem like he's been there just short of forever. And that's what happens when you, like Harangody, average 20 minutes, 11 points and six boards as a freshman. Each of those numbers has swelled since 2006, and Harangody is currently averaging 27.2 and 10.4; he averaged 23.3 points last season. Harangody has tallied no less than 27 in each of this past four games, and is also shooting 52.8 percent from the floor and better than 90 percent from the line. Oh, and he can step out, too – he's shooting 31.3 percent from downtown at the moment, a number likely to go up considering he was hitting 36.8 percent last season.

But Notre Dame isn't a one-man show, especially not from beyond the arc, where the Irish have, the past few seasons, been one of the nation's most prolific outfits. Last season the Irish ranked No. 8 in the nation in three-pointers per game, canning an average of 8.9. (NU was No. 24 with 8.2 per game.) And it's not just volume, it's accuracy as well. ND was No. 13 in the nation in '09, hitting 39.8 percent of its long-balls.

And it's been the same story this year – if not a little scarier for opponents. The Irish are hitting nearly as many threes per game – 8.8 this season – but attempting three less per game – 19.2 to 22.3 last year. All told, ND is averaging 1.26 points per possession, which ranks No. 3 in the nation, and scoring 86.8 points, No. 15. So this is as efficient and well-oiled an offense as NU is likely to see all season.

Kyle McAlarney, a sharpshooting junior who averaged 15 points and shot 42.3 percent from three-point land last season, has graduated. But that's not to say ND is short on shooters. Tim Abromaitis, a 6-8 forward who didn't play last season, is averaging 13.4 points per game and shooting – not a typo – 61.9 percent from downtown. Abromaitis has hit at least two threes in every game this season, and while his high-water mark on points is just 17, he is definitely a guy who can fill McAlarney's old role of stretching defenses.

Six-foot-3 Ben Hansbrough is chipping in from downtown too. Having also sat out last season, Hansbrough – the brother of former North Carolina star Tyler Hansbrough – has hit 12-of-18 threes this season. He hit five-of-five in the season-opener and four-of-six the next time out. Now, he's cooled off a bit the past few games, making just one three per contest. But a guy who hits nine of 11 to start the season can, at the very least, get hot.

Two more Irish players are averaging at least eight points per game – senior guard Tory Jackson has been good for 9.6 points (and 5.8 assists), and fellow senior Jonathan Peoples averages 8.2 points. Both of those guys hit better than 40 percent of their three balls, so between Harangody, Abromaitis, Hansbrough, Jackson and Peoples, ND has five guys who can fill it up from long range. And, save Abromaitis, who's a junior, those guys are all seniors, which never hurts.

This is an offense- and three-pointer-heavy look at Notre Dame. But it's offense and three-point shooting that give the Irish their fight. For the past few seasons, ND has had one of the itchiest trigger fingers in the nation from downtown, and it's had the personnel to pull it off.

Well, this season is no different. With a troop of experienced, quality players – players who fit the free-shooting system – this Notre Dame has been scarily efficient so far this season. Now, of course the Irish won't have two players finish the season canning better than 61 percent of their threes, which Hansbrough and Abromaitis are currently doing. But nonetheless, ND is a big-time team, a team that's been roughing up opponents all season, a team that poses a huge challenge for Northwestern. And, if the Cats win, a huge confidence boost as well.

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