No. 24 Notre Dame travels to Louisville's palatial YUM! Center for its second battle with the No. 6 ranked Cardinals; the fourth between the teams in the last 14 months and sixth matchup between the two programs in the last three conference seasons.
Of those five previous games, four included extra sessions -- nine total overtimes -- to decide the outcomes. It adds up to 245 minutes of basketball between Mike Brey's Irish juniors and seniors and Rick Pitino's veteran host Cardinals entering Saturday's Senior Day in northern Kentucky.
"What about three? Let's go three (overtimes)," joked Brey of the pending matchup. "I said to my A.D. (Jack Swarbrick) 'ESPN got the show, now CBS wants the show.' It's awesome though. There's so much anticipation. I think our guys are excited; I think Louisville is (too). There's just been dramatic games and certainly a great storyline off the last one."
Dating back to the 2005 season, four of the five Big East meetings between the teams played on Louisville's home court -- whether at the old Freedom Hall or YUM! Center -- played to overtime with Louisville winning each until last year's 67-65 double overtime upset loss to the then-struggling Irish in early January.
"It's going to be a 'red-out'" said Brey of the Cardinals' fans plan to don red shirts. "We're going to wear our gold. It's going to be a great atmosphere. We were fortunate enough to steal a win down there last time… we know we're going to get the shot of a real good team on Saturday."
The Cardinals opened in Las Vegas as a whopping 12.5-point favorite, the largest point spread facing Brey's Irish this season and the largest since Notre Dame's last visit to the YUM! Center last season when the Irish were also billed as 12.5-point underdogs.
Brey's group upset their hosts that January afternoon, 67-65 in overtime.
Keys to the ContestThe Cardinals boast the nation's No. 1 rated defense according to the comprehensive hoops website, KenPom.com.
Notre Dame can't be found on the list until No. 90, though over their last four games,the Irish have held foes to 42, 41, 72, and 40 points -- the three totals in the 40s ranking as the lowest outputs vs. the Irish program in their Big East history.
Louisville's year-long defensive excellence coupled with Notre Dame's recent ability to extend, defend, and most important, clear the defensive glass thanks to the presence of two big men on the floor, points to another low-scoring defensive struggle between the teams.
The Cardinals limited the Irish to just 48 points in the game's first 39 minutes before Notre Dame junior guard Jerian Grant -- previously without a field goal -- went off. Grant scored 12 points in the final 44 seconds to force the first of five overtimes, an extra 25 game minutes that saw the team's combine for 85 points.
Notre Dame had success last season at the YUM! Center when it broke the Cardinals press, then down-shifted and ran its burn offense. It's unlikely to take that tact today, not after the recent revelation that the offense operates best when guards Grant and Eric Atkins look to create -- both for themselves and others -- in the open floor.
"I really believe if we're going to do anything special in March, those guys have to be attacking and going for it, hunting their shot, looking to score, running our team like the second half," said Brey following Tuesday's blowout win over St. John's.
The Cardinals press attempts to speed up opponents -- Notre Dame might be forced to oblige today.
Matchup NotesCardinals senior point guard Peyton Siva runs the show, his penetration and ability to get in the paint, then find an open man following high screen-and-rolls among the most feared in the country. His backcourt mate and fellow senior Russ Smith ranks as Louisville's best perimeter scorer. Smith averages 18 points per game and scored 21 vs. Notre Dame in the previous meeting, though the confident guard missed 15 of 19 shots including all six of his three-point attempts in a whopping 56 minutes.
The pair is aided by backup Kevin Ware to form a trio that will battle with Atkins and Grant throughout the contest.
Pitino's power forward Chane Behanan starred in the team's first meetings, hitting for 30 points and 15 rebounds in 56 minutes. Behanan was 13 for 20 from the floor but missed crucial free throws in overtime(s) to keep the Irish hopes afloat. He'll be checked by Tom Knight, with Irish center Jack Cooley again matching up vs. Gorgui Deng.
Deng has hit 13 of his last 17 shots vs. Notre Dame over a two-game span, scoring 33 points with 19 rebounds against Cooley including last year's Big East semi-final win over the Irish. Cooley put up 11 points and 11 boards vs. Deng before following out in regulation of Notre Dame's five overtime win.
Today's X-factor is Cardinals backup swingman Luke Hancock. The George Mason transfer proved difficult for Notre Dame to contend with earlier this season, hitting for 22 points albeit on 19 shots. His matchup with sophomore swingman Pat Connaughton will prove crucial. Connaughton as great in the overtime sessions to key Notre Dame's upset win this season, finishing with 16 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists after a fairly nondescript regulation performance.
Connaughton remains in a major shooting slump, hitting just 7 of his last 41 three-point offerings over the last 10 games.
Brey's only backup guard option, freshman Cameron Biedscheid, will not play today due to suspension following his fight with St. John's forward SirDominic Porter on Tuesday.
Expect the Irish bench to be short in the second half, with surging freshman big man Zach Auguste (18 points and 19 boards off the bench in his last three) the only viable option unless senior backup center Garrick Sherman can again prove trustworthy. Sherman starred in the overtime sessions vs. Louisville (17 points and 6 boards on 7 of 10 shooting in 21 extra time minutes), but poorly of late, hitting just two of his last 14 shots inside while playing soft defensively.
The Irish don't appear to have the horses to hold up for 40 minutes (or more) in front of a fired up Senior Day crowd and one of the nation's best defensive teams.