No.9 Notre Dame vs. Marquette
Records: Notre Dame (14-2/3-1) – the Irish lost to current No. 13 Kentucky in Louisville, 72-58 on December 8 and Saturday at No. 4 Syracuse, 70-58.
Marquette (11-5/2-1) – Marquette lost to #1 Duke, 82-77, and most recently at #5 Pittsburgh, 89-81 on Saturday. They also dropped a one-point decision to a solid Vanderbilt squad as well as games to two foes vanquished by the Irish: Gonzaga, a 66-63 defeat, and vs. Wisconsin, a 69-64 loss at the Bradley Center.
Tip-off: 7:00 PM (EST) ESPN2
Previous Meeting: The Irish prevailed 63-60 in overtime in last year's regular season finale. The Senior Day win in the Bradley Center ranks among the most likely of the Brey era as the Irish came back from deficits of 19-8 and 42-33, and 50-43 – the latter with just 1:19 remaining – to spoil Senior Day in Milwaukee.
Carleton Scott hit a buzzer beating three-pointer to force overtime and Notre Dame uncharacteristically scored the extra session's first five points over a four-minute span before holding onto a road win that nearly guaranteed an NCAA bid.
Marquette is without four key players from that memorable contest while the Irish are sans three including Scott, who remains out due to a hamstring injury suffered in Syracuse on New Year's Day.
Series history: Notre Dame leads the series 78-35. The Golden Eagles rank as Notre Dame's most common opponent in the history of the program.
Quality Wins: Notre Dame (Georgia, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, #9 Georgetown, #8 Connecticut, St. John's); Marquette: (West Virginia in the teams' Big East opener at the Bradley Center).
Quote to Note: "It's the quickest transition of any junior college player I've ever seen," – Marquette head coach Buzz Williams on JuCo transfer and budding star, Jae Crowder.
Point Spread: Marquette -3
Notre Dame Starters and Key Contributors
- Forward: 6'8" 235-pound senior Tim Abromaitis: Locked back and re-loaded as a shooter after a tough start to 2010 (and finish last year) but true test will be in road tilts such as this…Has hit an unreal 40 of 71 three-point shots at the Purcell Pavilion in 12 games of conference action but connected on just 15 of 55 road attempts from long range last season vs. Big East foes including a 1-8 mark at the Bradley Center to end the season (hit 3 of 6 in only road game this year at Syracuse)…Leads the team in rebounding (7.3) and just a tick behind Hansbrough with 16.2 ppg…Tough matchup tonight vs. Jae Crowder and, on occasion, Darius Johnson-Odom…Must work the baseline (and therefore the free throw line) if defended by smaller guards as has been the strategy by most Big East foes over the last 10-12 conference outings…Has hit 13 of 23 from long range in conference action through four games but the Golden Eagles man-to-man defense will likely challenge that rate tonight.
- Forward: 6'8" 232-pound senior Tyrone Nash: Likely draws versatile Jimmy Butler as his defensive assignment tonight, a key sub plot in what should be a highly competitive, somewhat chippie contest…Sloppy (5 turnovers, 5 fouls, 2 boards in 23 minutes) in Saturday's win over St. John's and made just one trip to the free throw line – a sure sign that Nash isn't playing his best ball…Hit 5 of 6 in wins over G'Town and UConn (scoring a combined 26 points while grabbing 17 boards) and just 3-4 in games at Syracuse (loss) and St. John's, totaling just 13 points and 8 boards in those outings…Low-post quickness will be matched by Butler tonight but Nash can win the rebounding battle and threaten a double-double if he's patient and locked in.
- Guard/Forward: 6'8" 219-pound senior Scott Martin: Chipped in with his best overall effort Saturday vs. St. John's, totaling 12 points, 8 boards and 3 assists without a turnover in 35 minutes…Had previously committed a combined 7 turnovers in Big East games vs. UConn and Syracuse…Mid-range shot beginning to fall after two seasons of rust showed early – next step is to become more consistent from long range…Has netted double figures in five straight while corralling 18 boards and dishing out 11 assists over previous three contests…Ability to function at three positions has been key to 3-1 Big East start.
- Guard: 6'3" 203-pound senior Ben Hansbrough: Leads the team in 3-point shots made (47), attempted (T-92) and percentage (44.6) while also serving as the leader on and off the court…Has converted on 15 of his last 31 field goals and 21 of last 22 free throw attempts…Defensive effort up top helped force the nation's leading scorer into 15 misses last Tuesday in a win over Connecticut, then limited the dangerous Dwight Hardy to eight points in a blowout win over St. John's Saturday…Has his hands full tonight as Golden Eagles will undoubtedly run multiple defensive pests into his chest for 40 minutes.
- Guard: 6'2" 173-pound freshman Eric Atkins: Calming influence as a freshman point guard who's now starting one season ahead of schedule…Didn't turn the ball over vs. UConn in 39 minutes then committed just 3 (in 39 more) vs. St. John's…Will be tested tonight in charge of the offense in front of a raucous Bradley Center crowd with flypaper defensive approach of Buzz Williams perimeter pieces…Has hit three of last six from long range despite unorthodox shooting motion…Has only visited the free throw line once in the last six contests and does not yet appear comfortable from the charity stripe (missing 5 of 10 vs. Gonzaga and 3 of 5 vs. UConn)…Matched up with fellow freshman point guard Vander Blue in tonight's contest.
- Center/Forward: 6'9" 248-pound sophomore Jack Cooley: – Leads team in rebounds per minute (12 in 36 total) and bruises – received and distributed – over the last two contests…Has nearly no defensive matchup tonight vs. smaller Golden Eagles but the same holds true for Cooley on the low block if he can keep his wits about him receiving the post feed…Has seven points, 12 boards, 2 steals, 1 block and just one turnover with extended playing time due to Carleton Scott's absence (below)…Nine blocked shots ranks fourth on the team but his strong post position defense is key to his earned spot in the rotation – currently as the team's sixth-man.
- Forward 6'6" 215-pound sophomore Joey Brooks: Broke out of an offensive funk with a 5-6 effort from the charity stripe – all in the first half – Saturday vs. St. John's…Had not attempted a shot or a FT in three previous Big East games including failing to appear in a convincing win over Georgetown to open the conference slate…Defensive versatility will be necessary – and put to the test – vs. interchangeable swingmen at the Bradley Center.
- Center 6'9" 244-pound sophomore Mike Broghammer: Unlikely to appear (in a tight contest) vs. undersized Golden Eagles…Brings the necessary aggression and work on the boards/defense, but requires much more polish to join the rotation.
- Forward: 6'8" 218-pound senior Carleton Scott: Likely out through January due to a hamstring injury suffered in a New Year's Day loss at Syracuse.
Meet the Golden EaglesThey'll pressure the ball, overplay the passing lanes, and attack at every offensive opportunity. Buzz Williams Marquette program features undersized, interchangeable parts, all with a chip on their shoulders. After matchups with Duke, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Vanderbilt, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, they're battled-tested and possess the right recipe to defeat an equally confident, veteran Irish squad.
Leading the charge is returning senior Jimmy Butler, a 6'7" 220-pound post defender (not ideal) that can also guard, and play, four positions on the floor. Butler scored 16 points with 8 boards and 3 steals in 43 taxing minutes during last year's contest with the Irish. His ability to frustrate Tyrone Nash in the post will likely determine the tenor of the contest: can the Irish play their preferred method of inside/out? Or will Hansbrough be forced to facilitate the half-court offense from the perimeter?
Lending a recent hand is 2010 National Junior College Player of the Year, Jae Crowder, whose started six straight after a slow start including a 29-point outburst vs. West Virginia in the teams' Big East opener. At 6'6" 225, Crowder provides a difficult cover for Irish forwards Tim Abromaitis and Scott Martin – assuming Nash is asked to check the dangerous Butler for the bulk of the evening.
A duo of scoring guards returns as well led by 2010 revelation Darius Johnson-Odom who leads the team with nearly 16 points per night. At 6'2" 215, DJO is likely too solid for freshman Eric Atkins and will thus have to be checked by emerging defensive standout Ben Hansbrough (above). Inconsistent senior Dwight Buycks is another perimeter challenge, averaging 9.9 per game in 27 minutes while connecting on nearly 52 percent of his shots including 37 percent from downtown.
Freshman point guard Vander Blue comes off the bench for more than 26 minutes per night while sophomore guard Junior Cadougan also sees the rotation – Cadougan played 29 minutes in a win at Rutgers last week.
Freshman body Davonte Gardner (6'8" 290) could lend a hand in the post vs. Nash tonight. Gardner is a skilled athlete who's seen his time decrease in conference play. Forward Joseph Fulce also sees time as does technical starter Chris Otoule, a 6'11" sophomore who doesn't fit the current offense's mold but a player whose size and strength generally warrants double digit minutes each night.
More mental than physical: "Its way more mental than physical," says Irish head coach Mike Brey of the team's first Saturday/Monday turnaround of the Big East season. "Way more mental than physical."
It seems every matchup with Williams' set of swingmen offers such challenges: 40-plus minutes of ball pressure and harassment in hostile environs will test a player's fortitude and focus. Though Marquette was a stronger unit defensively last season, it's a much more potent offensive group this year, one with the unique ability to attack off the dribble with every member of the perimeter rotation.
Tonight, they're not the only team on the floor that possesses such traits. The Irish can beat you with ball movement and execution, but they're calling card at present is a vexing team defense. Winning with defense – a foreign concept for many years in end but something rooted in the last third of the 2010 conference season – has reached a peak level entering Game 5 of this year's Big East slate.
The team's defensive length, conscience, and emphasis represents a stark turnaround from the dangerous, but ultimately one-trick ponies of 2007 and 2008. (It should be noted those teams posted a 25-9 record in conference play).
The Irish still have three long or mid-range marksmen (four when Carleton Scott is healthy) but now the emphasis is inside/outside balance, multiple trips to the free throw line – and multiple stops at the other end of the floor.
"When you go on the road you really have to be ready to handle pressure, and be ready to rebound and defend because that is how you win on the road," said Hansbrough.
A 3-1 start featured three games vs. Top 10 foes and three home wins – two of which were earned without Scott. The Irish looked to be two tiers above previously 3-0 St. John's Saturday night (a performance I did not expect).
Road test No. 2 is tonight with a third to follow in a rematch with the Red Storm Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
Monday's matchup, given the situation (less than 48-hour turnaround/catching Marquette after a road loss) only exacerbates the challenge.
Protecting the ball and the backboard are stated keys to tonight's contest. Both can be realized with mental discipline and physical toughness. Look for a third issue to decide tonight's battle: free throws – unless the Irish remedy intermittently poor performances at the charity stripe (12-20 vs. Kentucky; 24-36 vs. Gonzaga; 19-31 vs. UConn), the unguarded shot will be the visitor's undoing.
Expect a fantastic college basketball game with the (slightly) better team falling short tonight...life in the Big East.
Prediction: Marquette 77 Notre Dame 73
Season Predictions (Major conference games only): 7-3 straight up; 5-4-1 against the spread. (3-1 straight up/against the spread in Big East games including a way-off-base prediction of a St. John's upset Saturday night).