Let it Rip

Ranked No. 15 in today's A.P. Poll, Notre Dame is nonetheless an 11-point underdog at No. 2 Pittsburgh tonight.

No. 15 Notre Dame at No. 2 Pittsburgh

Notre Dame (16-4/5-3) – The Irish lost to current #14 Kentucky in Louisville, 72-58 on December 8 and Saturday at #9 Syracuse, 70-58. After a 3-1 conference start they've since dropped road tilts at Marquette and St. John's before rebounding Wednesday with an 8-point win over #25 Cincinnati and Saturday night vs. scrappy Marquette.

Pittsburgh (19-1/7-0) – Pittsburgh's only loss was an 83-76 defeat to Tennessee in mid-December (played in Pittsburgh, though not at the Petersen Events Center). The Panthers have defeated teams currently ranked at #5, #7, #9, and #21 in the nation.

Tip-off: 7:00 PM (EST) ESPN

Previous Meetings: Notre Dame defeated the Panthers 50-45 in the Big East Quarterfinals last March. The Irish held Pittsburgh to just two three-point field goals in 10 attempts, limiting the Panthers to 17 total field goals (44 shot attempts).

The Irish also defeated Pittsburgh last February, 68-53 in South Bend. The Panthers connected on just 4 of 18 three-point offerings in that contest while Notre Dame drilled 10 of 18 shots from long range en route to a 50 percent shooting night overall.

Series history: Notre Dame leads 28-27 including a 12-12 split in Big East games (the Irish joined the conference in 1996).

Quality Wins:
Notre Dame (Georgia, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Connecticut, St. John's, Cincinnati, Marquette)
Pittsburgh: (Maryland, Texas, Connecticut, Marquette, Georgetown, Syracuse).

Quote to Note: "We have nothing to lose because of what happened (vs. Marquette). We can go in there really loose and going for it, and that's halfway through the league." - Irish head coach Mike Brey on a quick Saturday-Monday turnaround that concludes vs. powerful Pittsburgh.

Point Spread: Pittsburgh -11

Notre Dame Starters and Contributors

  • Forward: 6'8" 235-pound senior Tim Abromaitis: Just 20 of 68 from beyond the arc in 12 career conference road games vs. a scintillating 43-78 effort from downtown in 14 home league contests…Has attempted just three free throws in conference road games this season after earning 51 over the nine-game road slate last year…Ranks first or second on the Irish in points, rebounds, three-point percentage, steals, turnovers and minutes played this season.

  • Forward: 6'8" 232-pound senior Tyrone Nash: Posted back-to-back 13-point outings to break out of a three-game scoring slump…Foul shooting issues have resurfaced a bit as Nash has connected on just 11 of his last 20 free throw attempts after a tremendous start to the season from the charity stripe...Totaled 5, 6, and 7 points, respectively in three previous conference road games…Enjoyed two solid outings vs. Pittsburgh last year (13 points/7 boards followed by 8 points/6 boards) in a pair of Irish victories.

  • Guard/Forward: 6'8" 219-pound senior Scott Martin: Just nine of 31 from the field in three conference road games though he has chipped in with a 7 rebound-per-game average in those contests…Connected on clutch 8 of 10 free throw attempts Saturday vs. Marquette after missing 10 of 21 entering the contest…Struggling with his floor game, accruing 34 assists vs. 30 turnovers to date…Has posted double figures in seven of eight Big East contests and totaled a career-best 11 boards in his only single-digit outing.

  • Guard: 6'3" 203-pound senior Ben Hansbrough: Needs to bottle home court aggression in five remaining road tilts as the senior leader has earned just seven free throw attempts in three conference road games vs. 42 in five home contests…Has suffered a combined 7 turnovers in last two road outings but has surrendered just eight in six other Big East matchups…Has knocked down 45 of 47 free throw attempts in Big East play this season…Scored 15 points in a Purcell Pavilion win over the Panthers last year but was held to five on just five attempts in the Conference Tournament rematch.

  • Forward: 6'8" 218-pound senior Carleton Scott: Posted a double-double in win over Marquette Saturday, just his second game back and first start after missing previous five contests with a hamstring injury…Possesses a deadly mid-range jump shot off shot-fake and single dribble…Has connected on 34 of his 38 free throw attempts this season…Accounted for 37 percent of the team's blocked shots this season despite missing aforementioned five contests…More than half of his 124 shot attempts have occurred in three-point territory (36 percent success from long range) but needs to focus his attack inside the arc where he's an incredible 40 of 60 this season.

Key Reserves:

  • Guard: 6'2" 173-pound freshman Eric Atkins: Scored 12 first half points off the bench Saturday to keep Irish alive early vs. red hot Marquette…Has become much more confident and aggressive of late, nailing 18 of 21 free throws over the last four games after failing to earn a single trip to the charity stripe in five of previous six contests…Has 29 assists vs. 14 turnovers in first eight career Big East contests…In a groove with three double-digit games over last four while knocking down his last three shots from beyond the arc – an aspect of his game that must remain consistent throughout the conference season as teams continue to give room to the freshman point guard.

  • Center/Forward: 6'9" 248-pound sophomore Jack Cooley: – No show vs. Marquette Saturday though there was no athletic matchup to speak of vs. slew of Golden Eagle slashers…His solid interior presence tonight will be key vs. Panthers big man and former Indiana prep star Gary McGhee…Has just seven total rebounds in three conference road games this season…Confidence might be waning due to 0-4 shooting effort over the last four contests.

  • Forward 6'6" 215-pound sophomore Joey Brooks: At least 5, preferably 10 minutes of defense and rebounding a must tonight if the Irish are to earn major upset…Offensive game is non-existent and tonight is hardly the opportunity to work out the kinks…Played his best game of the season in ND's last road game, a blowout loss at St. John's in which Brooks earned 24 minutes vs. athletic Red Storm.

Panthers offer a Predicament

In Notre Dame's two late-season victories over Pittsburgh last winter, head coach Jamie Dixon saw his Panthers shoot a combined 6 for 28 from beyond the arc and miss 62 of 99 shots overall.

In 2011, Pitt leads the nation in assists per game (19.9); ranks second in assist-to-turnover ratio; connects on nearly 49 percent of its field goal attempts; leads the country in rebounding and rebounding margin, and averages better than 80 points per night.

The numbers are even more sobering for Irish fans when condensed to contests played at the Petersen Events Center – a building in which Mike Brey's Irish are 0-5 all-time.

The Panthers have scored 78, 89, 74, and 74 points in four conference home games, three of which have been played vs. nationally ranked foes. The Irish haven't topped 57 points in three conference road games this season and have scored more than 58 points just once in seven contests played outside the friendly confines of the Joyce Center.

As advertised: They were the coaches' choice as the Big East's top dog (In the December issue of IrishEyes Magazine we ranked the Panthers second behind the 17-2, #8 Villanova Wildcats) – and Jamie Dixon's veteran group has done nothing to dissuade those lofty expectations, vaulting to No. 2 in the nation on the strength of a nine-game winning streak with five wins over ranked foes.

A trio of Panthers are playing at an elite league level as the Big East's Most Improved Player winner from 2010 Ashton Gibbs has elevated his game yet again, leading Pittsburgh in scoring at nearly 16 points per game while knocking down almost 88 percent of his free throws and 45 percent of his long range offerings.

The team's chief facilitator is off-guard Brad Wanamaker, averaging 5.6 assists per game to augment his 12.6 points and almost five rebounds per contest. The senior leader rarely takes a bad shot (attempting just 28 three-pointers to date) and nearly single-handedly kept the Panthers afloat in last year's tournament loss to the Irish, scoring more than one-third of the team's 45 points.

Classmate Gary McGhee returns inside. The Anderson, Ind., native averages 8.1 boards per contest and has ripped down 10, 13, and 15 rebounds over the last three outings. His interior presence (6'10" 250) will make post play difficult for Tyrone Nash this evening.

Senior Gilbert Brown struggled in both losses to the Irish last season but is averaging 11.6 points and 4.6 boards per game in a starting role this winter. Wide-bodied junior Nasir Robinson rounds out the Panthers lineup – he netted 21 with 7 boards in a win over then-No. 4 Syracuse one week ago.

Key to the Panthers effort? Nine players averaging better than 12 points per game including sometimes electric sophomore guard Travon Woodall coming off the bench for nearly 20 minutes per contest.

Free-flowing: The last three Irish road games have been muddled, ugly, one-sided affairs. Expect that to change tonight as Mike Brey views tonight's contest as "House Money." That is, at 5-3 vs. a challenging early slate, the Irish have survived despite the absence of Carleton Scott, have a 10-day break forthcoming, and will tackle a much more manageable schedule in the conference season's second half.

What won't change is the team's ultimate success and ability to put together 40 minutes of basketball outside the Joyce Center. The South Benders have lost 15 of their last 20 away from the comforts of home and have never won in the Petersen Events Center. They're simply less aggressive (as evidenced by the free throw stats of Hansbrough and Abromaitis highlighted above) and have to date lacked the fortitude to finish in a hostile environment.

After a strong start, expect one unfortunate scoring slump to fell the Irish yet again vs. a cohesive Pittsburgh group.

Prediction: Pittsburgh 79 ND 70

Season Predictions (vs. major conference opponents): 10-4; 8-5-1 against the spread.

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