Nine down, nine to go

A look at the remaining conference games for Notre Dame after finishing the first half of the Big East schedule with a best-case-scenario mark of 6-3.

Highlighted by two home-and-home matchups in an 11-day span, the first month of the conference season pitted Mike Brey's Irish with nine games vs. seven teams, four of which resided among the nation's Top 10 at the time of the contest – each of those four remains in the Top 20 as of press time.

A fifth, Cincinnati, also breached the rankings and at 18-3 only to be knocked out by the Irish.

IrishEyes' official prediction for the halfway point was 5-4. Brey's bunch exceeded those expectations and now stand 6-3 with a likely Top 10 ranking awaiting them Monday and dates with conference also-rans DePaul and Rutgers on tap.

At the midway point, the Irish hit our Big East Preview's best-case-scenario and stand as a serious threat to finish among the top four teams in the nation's best conference.

Standing in their way? Five road games, two more Top 10 foes and another among the nation's 25 best between now and a date with Madison Square Garden in mid-March.

Plenty of Breathing Room

I noted that the conclusion of Game Nine at Big East favorite Pittsburgh would offer a glimpse at Notre Dame's standing heading into a more forgiving final nine contests. Would the Irish be mired below .500, or could they win five of their first nine of a 27-day span vs. the league's best?

Instead of surviving on the fringe of the Top 25 with their collective heads above water, Notre Dame has played its way into the nation's elite – at least according to the voters and computers if not its own fan base.

The Irish stand at No. 8 in the all-important RPI and boast the nation's ninth-toughest schedule, facing currently ranked teams Wisconsin, Kentucky, Georgetown, Syracuse, Connecticut and Pittsburgh while also beating formerly ranked foes Gonzaga and Cincinnati. Four of the remaining nine matchups include current Top 30 RPI opponents – contests that should offset perceived easy wins at DePaul and South Florida and at home vs. Rutgers (aggregate conference wins to date: five).

The final strength of schedule numbers will likely drop slightly due to the Big East's bottom trio, but the Irish have already, and will continue to impress the computers and NCAA Selection Committee with their remaining slate.

Upcoming – 3, 6, 9

At DePaul (0-8) on February 3; in South Bend vs. Rutgers (3-5) February 6; No. 19 (and rising) Louisville in South Bend on February 9.

The Notre Dame program scored its biggest road upset in 11 years, stifling formerly No. 2 Pittsburgh on Monday. The Irish have famously fared poorly over the last 2.5 conference seasons in road matchups but this particular group – since the late-February injury to Luke Harangody last year – has won three of its last seven Big East road games including three of four with Carleton Scott in the starting lineup.

A loss at DePaul would greatly damage the team's hopes for a Top 4 seed in both the Big East and NCAA Tournament, and shouldn't happen with nine days between the contest and their euphoric flight home from the Steel City.

Rutgers follows on Super Bowl Sunday, the Scarlet Knights haven't won in South Bend since 1999 and have dropped nine of their last 11 away from Piscataway (where they generally give the Irish all they can handle).

The last time Louisville visited South Bend the Irish were reeling from a seven-game losing skid that included defeats at the hands of six ranked foes. Notre Dame hammered Rick Pitino's Cardinals that February evening, 90-57. The visitors went on to the NCAA's Elite Eight.

Last year, sans Harangody, heavy underdog Notre Dame traveled to Freedom Hall and gave Louisville all it could handle in a 91-89 double-overtime defeat.

The programs have squared off six times since the Cardinals joined the Big East in 2006 with neither pulling out a victory on the other's home court. February 9, Pitino's crew, the league's best on the road over the last five years, will attempt to end that trend.

Segment Prediction: 3-0, with Louisville and the Irish playing a classic at the Joyce Center.

Danger Zone: Tampa, Morgantown and "The Dunk"

What should be a non-descript date with South Florida (2-7) in Tampa awaits three days after the Louisville contest. The Bulls upset a ranked Notre Dame team in the Sun Dome in February 2007 and also gave the Irish trouble in their only two other Tampa meetings.

Regardless, Brey is 6-1 vs. South Florida, a program that has yet to replace dominant guard Dominique Jones after his 2010 graduation. Formerly considered a trap game, there's no way the veteran Irish should drop a decision to the reeling, 8-14 Bulls.

From February of John MacLoed's last season through January of Mike Brey's eighth, Notre Dame owned West Virginia, winning 13 of 14 contests including 11 consecutive over seven-year span. In that period were wins over Mountaineers squads that reached the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. The Irish still haven't dropped a South Bend battle to West Virginia since 1996.

But since third-year head coach and WVA alum Bob Huggins took over and lost his first game to Brey's Irish in January 2008, The Irish have dropped three of four to the physical, defensively combative Mountaineers, including two in the Big East Tournament, most notably a heart-breaking 53-51 decision in the conference semi's last March.

The Irish will likely be favored in seven of their next eight contests leading up to a rematch vs. Top 10 UConn to close the season. A trip to Morgantown, one week after their flight home from Tampa, ranks as the exception in that span. That February 19 battle on CBS, coupled with a trip on the 23rd to Providence, Rhode Island, serves as the final road proving ground of the 2011 campaign.

The Friars have recently defeated Louisville and Villanova in the Dunkin Donuts Center. They previously played Pittsburgh and St. John's to margins of 4 and 2 respectively and have rediscovered the defensive end of the floor after a season in which the staff and players apparently agreed upon a mutual break from that taxing aspect of the sport.

Providence has a pair of perimeter threats that could plague the Irish defense, especially in a road setting at the tail end of a three-game traveling set.

If the Irish earn a split in the WVA/Providence road tandem, and take care of business as favorites over the next 33 days, a Top 4 conference finish will likely follow.

Segment Prediction: 1-2

Turnaround Time: A Puncher's Chance and Senior Night

The final Saturday/Monday turnaround of 2011 brings upstart Seton Hall and conference heavyweight Villanova to the Joyce Center. The former boasts scoring machine Jeremy Hazell, who lit up the Irish for 35 points on 12 of 16 shooting in a Hall victory last February; Hazell has since returned from a December gunshot wound to lead the Pirates in an of upset Syracuse in the Carrier Dome.

The Irish have won 3 of 4 Sat/Mon games to date, the only blemish a blowout loss at Marquette just 45 hours after a blowout win over St. John's in South Bend.

The February 26 Saturday tussle vs. Seton Hall is followed by a Monday date with Villanova. The Wildcats are Marquette-east: a disruptive perimeter bunch of defenders that can score off the dribble...and our pick as the regular season Big East champion in IrishEyes Magazine, though they've dropped three of four after a 16-1 start.

Villanova won on Senior Day 2009 in South Bend. It's hard to imagine this group of Irish senior leaders losing in front of what should be a wild Joyce Center crowd.

Segment Prediction: 2-0

House Money – Another Senior Day...in Storrs

Connecticut was a one-man gang when they visited South Bend as the nation's No. 4 ranked team in early January. That Notre Dame win vaulted the Irish into college basketball's conscious and the Huskies have since improved with a six-game winning streak (snapped in double overtime Saturday vs. Louisville) that featured two huge out-of-conference victories to remain steadfast among the Top 10.

Should the Irish win in Storrs, their conference and NCAA Tournament seed would reach heights not seen in 25 seasons.
Segment Prediction: 0-1

Final Prediction: 12-6 – Tied for No. 4 in the Big East

Our toughest games and the skinny on everything written above:
  1. at UConn: An on-campus revenge match for the Top 10 Huskies in Gampel Pavilion
  2. at West Virginia: Any contest vs. a solid, defensive-minded team will prove a challenge for Brey's Irish
  3. Villanova: Our vote as the toughest matchup, but something special happens to the Irish in South Bend
  4. Louisville: Pitino won't allow the Irish a comfort-level on the perimeter should the hosts go back to The Burn offense
  5. at South Florida: ND has won by just one and seven points and suffered an upset in its only three trips to the Sun Dome, but the Bulls are down after a four-year upward arc
  6. Seton Hall: Hazell can beat any team on any night
  7. at DePaul: Rust and the law of averages the only plausible bumps in the road for Notre Dame after a nine-day layoff
  8. Rutgers: You can't lose at home to Rutgers on 72 hours rest.

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