Tonight, Rutgers makes a trip west to South Bend – one of the three hardest places to win for any foe over the last six basketball seasons. Notre Dame has won 97 of its last 104 contests on the Joyce Center Floor including 44 of its last 50 vs. Big East foes and 32 of its last 33 contests.
Young, aggressive, and oh-so-close in four of their eight conference losses, the Scarlet Knights are a historically poor road outfit: 1-6 this year (1-5 in league play) and losers of 38 of their last 45 conference road games.
The home/road disparity between the programs resulted in an 11-point swing in the game's point spread. Winners of six straight, the streaking Irish (9-3) are favored by 8.5. Notre Dame is a half-game from second-place in the conference standings; the Scarlet Knights at 4-8 in league play are a half-game from the league's bottom quadrant.
"Don't get me wrong, and this is no slight on Notre Dame, but man are they on a roll," Rutgers coach Mike Rice told mycentraljersey.com. "They're doing things I don't think anybody thought they'd do."
Timing Favors the Favorites?Instrumental in five of Notre Dame's six wins since their mid-January Scarlet Knights slip has been a patient, efficient offense, protection of its backboard, and sound, communicative team defense.
The latter trait was missing in its most recent win, a sloppy 84-76 triumph over DePaul on Saturday. The contest served as a timely wake-up call for the Irish, who despite their #23/#25 national rankings, is nowhere near good enough to show up and gain victory vs. any opponent with a pulse.
Rutgers showed in the teams' first matchup it had the ability to overwhelm Notre Dame's sometimes absent offense.
"I don't know, are we the favorite after they beat our butts so easily in New Jersey?" Brey asked in his February 13 press conference. "I addressed it the other day and I'm not going to address us anymore," he said of the team's role as a favorite.
"It's all about us trying to do what we do well, which has really worked well, and can we get better in some areas? Last year's team was a finished product pretty early. This year's group can continue to get better by New York City and that's what I'd like to continue to focus on."
To beat Rutgers, Notre Dame will have to win a few individual matchups despite unrelenting defensive pressure. The Scarlet Knight forced 11 Irish turnovers in their January victory but more telling, allowed the Irish just 13 assists, a far cry from their usual home court efforts that included 17, 22, and 18 assists on 18, 28, and 20 field goals, respectively in wins over #1 Syracuse, #15 Marquette, and DePaul.
In short, Notre Dame each other to convert offensively – a tall order when every dribble, pass, and shot is contested by a dedicated defensive group.
"They want to have a flow and a lot of it is through the pass and not the bounce," Rice said of Brey's resurgent Irish. "We want to make them bounce it and disrupt the timing. We were able to do that (in the first meeting). They had a couple of careless turnovers that they usually don't make and we capitalized."
End ResultsRutgers has dropped 13 games this season, though eight of those decisions were determined by five points or fewer. Should the Scarlet Knights play the Irish close, Brey knows his crew has winning experience to draw upon.
"They really feel good about end-game situations. The last five minutes, they really feel they should win," he offered. "You can work on that in practice but you have to have a couple of guys when the lights are on – and I think we do collectively, and that's why we've won a lot of close games.
"We're a pretty stable group; very clear heads" Brey continued. "They're not really thinking about what's the next phase after (their) basketball careers at Notre Dame. They just want to get better."
The team's continual ascent has caused fan chatter to change from "if" to "how high?" As in, how high of a seed can the streaking Irish attain if they remain atop the conference standings?
"The only thing we'll talk about is post-season positioning for the Big East Tournament," Brey admitted. "They're very aware of the double bye vs. the (single) bye. Last year we earned that (Notre Dame played its first game on Thursday and with one win, advanced to the semi-finals) so they're aware what that meant. I've talked about that a couple times so that's the only positioning we'll talk about."
To achieve that end, the Irish can't afford a home slip…or a Scarlet Knights sweep in the season series.
Odds and EndsNotre Dame is 27-7 over its last 34 Big East regular-season contests…The Irish defense has yet to allow a Big East foe to score 20 or more points in 12 league games this season…Sophomore guard Jerian Grant leads the team in points (326), assists (121), steals (32), minutes played (880), free-throw percentage (80.3) and three-pointers (40)…Grant ranks fifth nationally and first in league play in assist-to-turnover ration: 3.10…
Junior center Jack Cooley has registered back-to-back double-doubles three times this season, each in Big East competition…His 22 points Saturday vs. DePaul were a conference career-high…Cooley leads the Big East with a 61.1 percent field goal percentage; he's averaged 13.5 points and 9.9 boards in league games, the latter ranking second in the Big East…Cooley's 4.5 boards per game ranks first in conference play…
Notre Dame (17-8/9-3) has won just 17 of 30 matchups vs. Rutgers (12-13/4-8), though six of the last eight have favored the Irish…Notre Dame is 10-2 all-time vs. Rutgers in South Bend including seven straight…The Irish are 14-10 since the programs joined the Big East, both for the 1995 season…Brey is 11-6 vs. the Scarlet Knights in his coaching career.