They Must Protect This House

Notre Dame has lost twice in its last three games played inside the Purcell Pavilion. Tonight's guest Villanova rides a two-game winning streak over top five foes and is fully capable of dealing the Irish tell-tale defeat No. 3 in South Bend.

At 16-4 and 4-3 in Big East play, Notre Dame doesn't technically face a "must-win" situation tonight. With 10 conference games remaining thereafter, there's too much time and opportunity at hand to panic following defeat, or to exhale after victory.

But make no mistake, tonight's 6 p.m. (ET) tilt vs. recent giant-killer Villanova (13-7, 4-3) has significance. Should the Irish lose, it would be just the second time since 2005 and the fourth time in 13 seasons at the helm a Mike Brey-led squad dropped three league home games. The last occurred five years ago when Jay Wright's Wildcats dealt the final death blow in an 77-60 pasting.

That regular season-ending defeat still ranks as the worst home loss of the Brey era, a fact only relevant in that the second biggest margin came in the team's most recent home contest, a 63-47 humbling at the hands of Georgetown.

His Irish have since bounced back, winning in come-from-behind fashion at South Florida, 73-65 Saturday. A win tonight would give the Irish a 5-3 conference mark near the league's midway point. With a trip to bottom-dweller DePaul on tap for Saturday, 6-3 after nine with nine to play appears well within the team's reach.

But Syracuse follows. Then Louisville with ESPN Game Day in South Bend for the festivities. Tournament contenders Marquette, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Louisville again populate the league season's second half.

In other words, it gets harder, and just one of Brey's four squads that lost three times at home in league play advanced to the NCAA Tournament (2001-02).

Earning a victory tonight vs. the dangerous Wildcats, winners twice vs. top five teams last week (Syracuse and Louisville, both in Philadelphia) a team currently tied with the Irish and two others for fifth in the conference standings, will go far in determining Notre Dame's post-season fate.

Will the Irish celebrate a berth in the Big Dance for the sixth time in seven seasons? Or be relegated to the "other" tournament, and college basketball's version of purgatory -- the NIT -- after a pre-season third-place conference prediction per the league's coaches.

Notre Dame doesn't often lose more than once at home. They've lost twice already. It might take a 7-2 mark on the Joyce Center Floor to ensure the Irish reach their mid-March destination of choice.

Matchup Notes

Tonight will be the 35th meeting between the Irish and Wildcats with the latter holding an 18-16 edge. Notre Dame has won two straight including a 20-point comeback win last February in Philly. Brey is an even 6-6 vs. Villanova and the Irish had previously lost their only seven Big East meetings to the Wildcats prior to his arrival in 2000-01.

  • Brey and Wright have faced often including 14 times when Brey coached Delaware and Wright America East Conference rival Hofstra, with Brey owning a 10-4 edge in those meetings; Wright a 6-5 advantage at their current stops giving Brey a 15-11 lead overall..

  • Notre Dame has averaged 75.2 points-per-game four league wins, just 56 in three defeats. Not surprising, shooting has been the key ingredient, as the Irish hit 52.6 percent of their shots including 52.2 percent from long range in victory; 41.4 and 23.7 percent in defeat.

  • The Irish are 112-9 in their last 121 games played at home, a .926 winning percentage that ranks second only to Kansas; .967 mark in that span. Notre Dame is 47-3 in its last 50 home games with two losses courtesy Connecticut (including January 12) and another in their last home outing, January 14 vs. Georgetown.

  • 6th-year senior forward Scott Martin will miss his second straight contest due to knee tendinitis. Martin is out indefinitely after struggling mightily in a quartet of recent outings against Connecticut, St. John's, Rutgers, and Georgetown. He had started hot in league play, hitting a career-best 6 of 7 three-point shots in a blowout win over Seton Hall on January 7.

    Senior Tom Knight will make his second career start in Martin's stead. Knight hit for 17 points on an 8 of 10 shooting effort Saturday against South Florida.

  • Notre Dame ranks ninth nationally in fewest turnovers per game (10.7). They rank second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.70) and third in assists per game (18.2). Notre Dame has assisted on 66.7 percent of its field goals through 20 games this season.

  • The Irish rank first in the Big East and 15th nationally in three-point percentage (.397 overall and 42.1 percent in league games.) A 12 for 18 effort in the conference opener vs. Seton Hall contributes greatly to that ranking.

  • Brey's bunch likewise leads the Big East in conference free throw percentage (76.3%).

  • Las Vegas still believes in Notre Dame on its home floor -- the Irish have been installed as 8-point favorites for tonight's contest, televised on ESPN2 (6 pm).

Prediction: Notre Dame 64 Villanova 61 Top Stories