Preview: Villanova

A closer look at tonight's matchup between the No. 7 Irish and the No. 19 Villanova Wildcats.

Notre Dame looks to move within a game of first-place in the nation's best conference when they entertain the 19th-ranked Villanova Wildcats tonight at the Purcell Pavilion.

Head coach Jay Wright's squad enters tonight's contest tied for eighth in the rugged Big East after a home loss to surging St. John's over the weekend. Notre Dame has won 83 of its last 89 home games (39-5 in conference) including a 16-0 mark this season with 10 consecutive Big East victories (8-0 this year) to their credit.

Notre Dame has finished undefeated at home in four seasons inside the 42-year-old building, formerly known as the Athletic & Convocation Center: 1973-74, 1985-86, 2006-07 and 2007-08.

Irish seniors Ben Hansbrough, Tyrone Nash, and Tom Kopko will be honored tonight in Senior Night festivities, while classmates Carleton Scott, Scott Martin, and 2010 graduate Tim Abromaitis will return to South Bend for a 5th-season of eligibility in 2011-12.

Notre Dame is 7-3 on Senior Night under head coach Mike Brey, last losing to Pittsburgh in 2005.

No. 19 Villanova at No. 7 Notre Dame

Notre Dame (23-5/12-4) – Notre Dame rallied to defeat Seton Hall on Saturday, 60-48. The Irish had previously concluded a three-game road set with a 94-93 win at Providence, bringing their league road record to a solid 4-4 (tied for third-best among league teams). Notre Dame has dropped double-digit road decisions to Syracuse, Marquette, St. John's, and WVA this winter with an additional defeat in Louisville at the hands of Kentucky as the only non-conference blemish.

Villanova (21-8/9-7) – The slumping Wildcats have lost four of six and seven of 12 after winning 16 of their first 17 to start the season. Villanova lost Saturday to streaking St. John's – winners of five straight – on Senior Day in Philadelphia.

Tip-off: 7:00 (EST) ESPN

Previous Meetings: Villanova hammered the Irish at the Wells Fargo Center last January, 90-72, outscoring the visitors 49-32 in the decisive second half. The Wildcats were led by the point guard trio of Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Maalik Wayns, who scored an aggregate 44 points with 11 assists and four steals.

Villanova has won five of the series last seven matchups including a 77-60 win in South Bend in 2009. The Irish are 2-3 at home vs. the Wildcats in Mike Brey's tenure.

Series history: Villanova leads the series, 18-14, including a 8-8 mark in South Bend.

Quality Wins:
Notre Dame (Georgia, Wisconsin, Gonzaga, Georgetown, Connecticut, St. John's, Cincinnati, Marquette, at Pittsburgh, Louisville)
Villanova: (Bucknell, UCLA, Temple, Cincinnati, Louisville, Maryland, Syracuse, Marquette, West Virginia)

Quote to Note: "Honestly, I feel like we're getting, believe it or not, a little bit better but not good enough for this league." – Villanova coach Jay Wright after Saturday's loss to St. John's, the Wildcats fourth defeat in their last six contests.

Point Spread: Notre Dame -5

Meet the Wildcats

An old fashioned 7-on-7 battle is brewing tonight in South Bend as Jay Wright's snake-bitten Wildcats search for their first win over a ranked foe since mid-January (an 11-point victory at Syracuse). Villanova has struggled from the floor over the last three games, hitting just 19 of 70 three-point shots and failing to shoot better than 40 percent from the field in each of those contests.

As has been their custom over the past decade, the Wildcats feature a guard trio that stresses opposing defenses on the perimeter. The senior tandem Corey Fisher (15.5 points, 5 assists per game) and Corey Stokes (15.2 points, 11-20 in last two games from down town) are both capable of 30-point efforts on a given night. Fisher has struggled of late, hitting just four of 26 shots in losses to Syracuse and St. John's and has been plagued with foul trouble in four of the last five contests. He's sixth in the conference in scoring (17.1 per contest in league play) and still shooting 40 percent from downtown despite recent scuffles.

Stokes missed three mid-February games with turf toe, but since returned to score 44 total points in consecutive defeats. He ranks second in Big East play in free throw percentage (87.5) and fifth from beyond the arc, shooting a sterling 44.9 percent – with unlimited range, to boot.

Sophomore Maalik Wayns (13.3 points, 4.6 assists per game) is the latest blur in Wright's stable of backcourt aces. The Philadelphia phenom will be the quickest player on the court and can only be checked tonight by the Irish point guard tandem of Hansbrough and Atkins, leaving the other member of the duo to defend the seasoned but struggling Fisher. Wayns is just 2 for his last 18 from long range (a six-game span) and has but one more assist than turnover over that same period (20-19) after dishing out 52 assists vs. 31 turnovers in his first 10 Big East contests this season.

The ‘Nova frontcourt is anchored by senior forward Antonio Pena and improved sophomore big Mouphtaou Yarou. Pena, who has 36 boards over his last four outings, leads the team in rebounds (7.5) while scoring 10 points per contest. Yarou chips in 7.2 boards, second on the squad, but has failed to notch double figures on the scoreboard in three of his last four after posting four consecutive double digit games previously.

Wright's short bench features 6'6" shooting guard Dominic Cheek and 6'8" sophomore forward Isaiah Armwood. Cheek possesses a (difficult-to-defend) high release on his perimeter jump shot but has been inconsistent in his first season. Cheek knocked down three long balls Saturday vs. St. John's though he offset that with four turnovers in 23 minutes.

Armwood had his best game in a recent loss at Syracuse, scoring 12 points with 10 boards and three blocks in 29 minutes off the bench. 6'5" freshman guard James Bell erupted for 21 points in a close-shave win vs. lowly DePaul, but Bell is unlikely to garner many minutes with Stokes back in the flow.

The Big One

There are ample story lines for Irish (and Big East) fans in tonight's contest, but chiefly at stake is a double bye for Notre Dame in next week's Big East Tournament. Win, and its theirs. Lose? Well the permutations get ugly with a road finale at Connecticut Saturday, and foes Louisville, St. John's, and Syracuse still in the picture with a multiple-team tiebreaker scenario.

Villanova's guard-oriented offense has encountered the longstanding attack's Kryptonite: a major shooting slump. And uncharacteristically, Jay Wright's squad has failed in crunch-time of late, losing by 2, 3, 1, 3, and 5 points in Big East games before a wire-to-wire 12-point defeat vs. St. John's on Saturday.

Villanova creates and commits turnovers; they hit free throws (a league-best 75.1 percent), three-point shots (37.3 for the year despite a three-game slump, good for second behind Pittsburgh and ND), and they're underrated on the glass (3rd in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage in league action).

But tonight's contest will be determined by three factors:

  1. The percentage of open shots made vs. those missed, as penetration will afford opportunities to both teams.
  2. Notre Dame's ability to keep Fisher and Wayns out of the lane in penetration
  3. The continuation of Notre Dame's foul shot discrepancy in conference home games.

If the Irish head to the free throw line early and often, in either half, it's lights out for the visitors. The Irish live at the line in South Bend, hitting 167 of 225 free throw attempts in eight conference games heading into tonight's finale.

Those eight vanquished opponents collectively? A mere 78 of 98 from the charity stripe when visiting one of the nation's toughest venues over the last four seasons.

But the Wildcats have attempted seven more free throws than have their hosts tonight (709 to 702 including non-conference games). Villanova must maintain that aggressive level of offense to pull off a league-changing upset in South Bend.

Prediction: Notre Dame 75 Villanova 69

Season Predictions (Big East and major conference foes): 16-5; 12-8-1 against the spread.


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