Mental Toughness First, Physical to Follow

Despite an 8-5 deadlock in the Big East standings, Mike Brey's 25th-ranked Irish enter 20th-ranked Pittsburgh's Petersen Events Center tonight as underdogs of 10.5 points. The challenge ahead is as much mental as physical.

Both are 20-6. Both are 8-5 in league play. Both are coming off Saturday afternoon losses after recent runs of success. One, however, is favored by 10.5 points, the other apparently left for dead.

A 17-point loser at 6-7 Providence Saturday, Notre Dame plays in Pittsburgh tonight and if Las Vegas oddsmakers are your guide, the Irish aren't expected to win. In fact, they've been given 4.5-1 odds against emerging victorious -- or the exact same odds facing the Irish the last time they visited the Petersen Events Center, January 24, 2011, a game in which the 14th-ranked Irish beat the second-ranked Panthers, 56-51, also as underdogs of 10.5 points.

"We've invested a lot emotionally and physically over the last week," said Brey following his team's embarrassing loss to the Friars. "My demeanor is not to rant and rave, because I'm thinking we've got another one (tonight). We've got to get our energy back and get some juices back…It's been a long week."

A long two weeks, to be exact. Tonight will be Notre Dame's sixth game in 16 days, a span of basketball that included seven overtimes -- nearly the equivalent of seven conference games over 16 days and nights.

But thereafter the Irish don't play until Sunday, a home date with Cincinnati and a Bearcats team the Irish beat in its own building in early January, a win that still ranks as their best outside the Purcell Pavilion.

That would change if Brey and his new eight-man rotation can pull off another surprise in the Steel City.

Two Challenges, One Far More Troubling

For all the gloom and doom surrounding Brey's Irish following their blowout loss Saturday, its relevant to note Notre Dame remains tied for Pittsburgh for fifth place, just 1.5 out of first.

Of course, both teams are also 1.5 out of 11th in the parity-driven league.

Pittsburgh has won seven of nine including a 10-point leveling of Syracuse two weeks ago in tonight's venue. The Irish have handled their business in five of seven after a 3-3 start, all without 6th-year senior Scott Martin, sidelined by knee tendinitis.

The Panthers defend like their families are nestled inside the hoop, go up to 10 deep in their rotation, and are likely far better than their present No. 20 ranking.

Notre Dame conversely defends like it did during the NIT season of 2009, is likely not quite as good as its No. 25 touting, and now plays eight players rather than seven, but just two of the eight operate from the backcourt -- and therein lies the main issue tonight:

Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant have proven only inconsistent.

The guard tandem Brey believed to be among the nation's best has been the best on the court precious few times this winter.

The Irish will get throttled if that proves true tonight.

Notre Dame might not win tonight, but it has no excuses if it plays poorly, or in any way resembles the team that showed up in New England for a free cup of chowder. The team is two halves away from its longest break since Christmas, a six-day respite followed by five more days off prior to another decided underdog situation, March 2 at Marquette.

Full investment from all is mandatory if the Irish are to earn a much-needed victory. Few put forth that effort Saturday at the Dunkin' Donuts Center and it manifested on the defensive end, on the glass on both ends of the floor, and in an offense that too often showed the dreaded "1-4 Set," i.e., four guys standing and watching one player with the ball.

Pittsburgh has responded to its last three losses with convincing wins this season, burying Georgetown by 28 in their own building; leveling Villanova in Philly by 15; hammering Syracuse by 10 at The Pete.

Notre Dame has likewise bounced back with wins following three of four opportunities following losses to date, tonight's pending.

The Irish have won four straight vs. Pittsburgh dating back to February 2010, but No. 5 is a tall task for a team that looked as weak mentally as it was physically Saturday afternoon.

Yet this group proved mentally tough under duress last season, winning a program record nine straight after a terrible start. It likewise often answered the bell when faced with adversity in late-season 2010, winning six straight when injury-depleted and left for dead.

Look for 30-32 minutes of quality, focused basketball from Brey's eight-man rotation before the physical strain of February proves too much to overcome, and a final score not indicative of the contest.

Pittsburgh 68 Notre Dame 54


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