Polar Opposite?

Forget what you saw in Morgantown earlier this month. Tonight's matchup between Big East #2 Notre Dame and #9 West Virginia will play out in stark contrast to the brick-fest featured in a four-point Irish victory on February 8.

"Ain't gonna be like last time. Ain't gonna be like last time."
– Apollo Creed, Rocky II

27 missed shots apiece. Just 7 of 37 combined beyond the arc. No points for Mountaineers senior point guard Truck Bryant in 40 minutes. Just one assist for sophomore catalyst Eric Atkins in 39, and just eight assists total for the unselfish Irish, a conference-season low.

Only eight turnovers committed between the teams and, somehow, just three free throws attempted by the home team.

No, it's unlikely the Notre Dame/West Virginia rematch tonight will resemble the teams' first meeting in Morgantown on February 8, won 55-51 by the visiting Irish due largely to a 9-2 run in the final two minutes that stunned the host's always rowdy faithful.

Irish freshman sensation Pat Connaughton didn't score. Big East Player of the Year favorite Kevin Jones hit just six shots, attempted a lone free throw, and inexplicably endured long stretches without touching the basketball for the Mountaineers.

About the only thing standard in the four-point Irish victory was a Jack Cooley double-double. It was the first in an ongoing streak of four (eight in 14 conference games) for the emergent junior who's suddenly joined Jones on the short-list for league MVP honors (Cooley won't win, but he's produced a case for first team All-Big East center along the way.)

"I'd like to see us get out and run the ball a little bit," Irish head coach Mike Brey offered. "We've scored the ball here (in South Bend). We're not scoring 50 lately. We're kind of getting up and down and putting numbers on the board. It's been a subtle slide that way).

"We've got some guys that are in a bit of a rhythm and (can say), ‘Let's put 75 up; instead of 52.'"

52 would have been enough on February 8 in Morgantown. It won't be tonight. The Irish have scored 67, 76, 84, and 71 in their last four home wins, each during the team's current 8-game winning streak. Their four road victories in that span produced just 55, 50, 55, and finally 74 points vs. Villanova Saturday, though the teams were deadlocked at 60 at the end of regulation.

Only one number matters

Whether it's a grind or series of strikes from beyond the arc, Brey's Irish have kept an even-keel despite what would be an unprecedented run of nine straight Big East victories should Notre Dame defeat the Mountaineers tonight.

"It's a really innocent climb with this group," said Brey of his team's recovery from a 29-point embarrassment at the hands of Missouri in Kansas City's Sprint Center, and its subsequent ascent to the precipice of a second straight No. 2 finish in the Big East.

"It's great, because (they're) so in with both feet…You have really good heads, no distractions, and that's what I'm thinking about. Keeping (this) frame of mind, because through all this, people telling you you're good, you're on a role; people talking about you," Brey continued. "Human nature can (suggest): ‘I need to do more of that for my game.' That can creep in, and I'm the most paranoid guy for that, being in this business a long time.

"Now, when you have five guys playing almost the whole game, you don't have a playing time problem. There are a lot of dynamics as you keep winning that are interesting to me. This group has handled it pure."

Tonight's matchup promises to be a chippie affair between two familiar teams. Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins will challenge his group for 40 minutes and Notre Dame's youthful crew has responded to Brey's tutelage, developing a level of confidence no one expected from a group that was simply overrun by any competent foes in November and December.

"I've been waiting for them to have a breakdown. And they haven't," Brey concluded before adding with a grin, "But again, I don't trust anybody."

Brey's worries will be assuaged as long as the Irish continue to play their brand of unselfish basketball until the final whistle blows each night.

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