Preview: Irish vs. Wildcats

Notre Dame will try to keep pace with Marquette for second-place in the Big East standings with tonight's matchup in Philadlphia vs. struggling Villanova. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. on ESPNU.

Mike Brey's Irish look to continue their climb up the Big East and national rankings in Philadelphia tonight was a matchup vs. the struggling Villanova Wildcats.

Long a thorn in the program's side, Brey 23rd ranked Irish enter tonight's contest as 2.5-point favorites, the first time Notre Dame has been favored in a Big East road game this season.

Panned for their poor road play throughout Brey's 12-season tenure, the Irish have redefined their identity of late, winning 11 of their last 17 conference road tilts including four of six this season. Prior to this recent run of road success, Notre Dame had lost five straight roadies in Big East play, and 14 of 16 dating back through the 2009 league season.

"They've embraced that. They really like going into other places," said Brey of the current team's road persona. "What I've been so impressed with, and I think it starts with our guards, their poise in the last five minutes on the road when the place is rocking, and maybe our opponent is in the midst of a run, we just get even more poised."

Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant are the guards to whom Brey refers. The pair dug the Irish out of late holes at both Louisville and West Virginia to steal wins late this season and was instrumental in road victories at Seton Hall and Connecticut as well.

The latter three foes listed above fell victim to the team's current seven-game winning streak. The run is best in the best active streak in the Big East and tied for second-best in program history. The Troy Murphy-led Irish won eight straight league games in 2001, Brey's first season at the helm.

Instrumental in tonight's contest will be the Irish defensive effort vs. Villanova guard Maalik Wayns, though the lightning-quick junior has been out since February 7 due to a sprained knee suffered in a win over Providence. Wayns missed just one game – Wednesday's loss at South Florida – a quirk in the Wildcats schedule included just one contest between the 7th and today's matchup with the Irish 11 days later.

Wayns averages nearly 18 points, 4.5 assists, and four rebounds per contest, the latter number belying his 6'2" 185-pound frame. No individual opponent has breeched 20 points vs. the Irish defense in league play this season. Expect both Grant and Atkins to draw the defensive assignment vs. Wayns should the Wildcats star return tonight.

Picked to finish 8th in the pre-season coach's poll, Villanova (11-14) has struggled throughout the season and currently sit tied for with Rutgers for 11th in the league standings, 4-9 in conference play. Including tonight's contest, three of Notre Dame's final five Big East contests will be vs. foes ranked 11th or lower.

Villanova has lost four of its last five though the Wildcats did take Marquette–currently tied with the Irish for 2nd in the conference standings at 10-3–to the wire, 82-78, during that span.

Series/Game Notes

Villanova holds an 18-15 edge in the series that dates back to 1970...The Wildcats join Syracuse (24-19), Louisville (17-11), and Georgetown (14-13) as the only Big East schools to hold a series advantage over the Irish…The ‘Cats have won 13 of 18 Big East matchups between the teams including the first nine from 1996 to 2004…

Brey and the Irish have won in Philadelphia twice in five matchups and the teams have split the last 10 meetings of the series...Notre Dame hammered the Wildcats 93-72 last season on Senior Night in South Bend; the Irish connected on a program record 20 three-pointers in the blowout win…

With a win tonight, Notre Dame would equal its best start in conference history, tying the aforementioned 2001 group that began 11-3 en route to an 11-5 finish and West Division league title…A win by the Irish would also clinch a Top 8 regular season finish in the league standings…Villanova is 3-3 at home in Big East action this season and finished 5-4 last season at the Pavilion…The Wildcats 65-51 loss at South Florida Wednesday was their third straight to the Bulls, currently a surprising 9-4 in Big East games…

Notre Dame has beaten league foes slotted at #1, #2(Tie), #5, #6, #8, #9, #10, and #11(Tie) at present. Only #7 Cincinnati holds a tie-breaker over Notre Dame among teams who could pull even with the Irish. Current #4 Georgetown and #2(Tie) Notre Dame will square off in D.C. on February 27.

Prediction – Notre Dame 68 Villanova 63 Top Stories