The Irish are bigger, stronger, deeper, and a bit more battle-tested while the Scarlet Knights have lost their top scorer and creator; on the ropes with 11 losses in their last 14 games. But tonight's underdogs have likely been rejuvenated by two straight wins and are less than 24 hours removed from a remarkable second-half shooting effort that helped dump DePaul, 76-57 last night at Madison Square Garden.
Rutgers (15-15; 5-13) shot better than 60 percent in the game and was led last night by forward Wally Judge's perfect performance: a 9 for 9 shooting effort that resulted in 20 points and 10 boards.
Judge's 9 for 9 effort tied a Big East Tournament record.
"Wally and the whole team, no matter what happened this year, continued to work," said Scarlet Knights head coach Mike Rice. "It's not a doubt in my mind that he's improved every single day because of it. It allowed him to have a night like this, a record-setting night like this."
Judge picked up the slack of leading scorer Eli Carter, out since mid-February due to a fractured fibula. Carter scored 22 points on 9 of 15 shooting vs. the Irish in the team's first meeting.
Mike Brey's Irish (23-8; 11-7) have had success over the last month when they've defended and rebounded, beating Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and St. John's by holding them to 42, 41, and 40 points, respectively -- each time breaking a program record for fewest points allowed in a Big East game.
Notre Dame out-rebounded Pittsburgh and Cincinnati by an obscene 81-52 margin. The Panthers and Bearcats finished league play ranked second and third, respectively, in rebounding margin.
"I think we've understood that we can defend and rebound to win games. We're going to have to do that to stay alive in March."
In their last four Big East Tournament victories, each part of a continuous three-season run to the conference semi-finals, Notre Dame has held its opponents to 53, 51, 56, and 45 points.
The Winner Will…Get off to a quick start. Notre Dame's three-year run of success with Jack Cooley and Eric Atkins as chief contributors includes a 31-1 mark when shooting 50 percent or better; a 54-2 record when out-rebounding its foe, and a 55-5 record after leading at halftime.
If Rutgers continues to rip the nets as it did last night vs. DePaul, the Scarlet Knight's confidence will swell, and Rice's squad has enough athleticism to contend with the Irish overall quality of play when his team is clicking.
Key to Notre Dame's effort will again be Cooley. Rutgers out-rebounded Notre Dame in the first meeting, though that was before Brey debuted his four big-man rotation. Since, the Irish have drawn even or decisively won the battle on the boards in 10 of 12 contests.
If Cooley is involved early, the game will open up for Brey's tell-tale guard pair of Atkins and Jerian Grant. When the duo is able to find space in half court sets, the rest of the Irish offense opens up, with Pat Connaughton scoring on late-clock cuts, Tom Knight spotting up for mid-range jumpers, and the guard off the ball often benefitting from a drive and dish back to the arc from his partner.
Notre Dame's offense is at its best when Grant and Atkins are on the move -- that's not possible if Cooley doesn't win in the post, first.
What to Watch…Notable player observations entering tonight's contest:
- Rutgers guard Miles Mack bothered Notre Dame's guards with his penetration and quickness in transition, using spacing in the latter to drill open shots from long range. Mack accounted for nine straight points (scored or assisted) as Rutgers pulled close over the final eight minutes...
- The aforementioned Judge is coming off a 9 for 9 performance. He struggled vs. Cooley and Scott Martin in the teams' first meeting, scoring just four points on 2 of 6 shooting in 17 minutes. Forward Kadeem Jack (6'9" 225) helped mitigate Judge's no-show vs. the Irish with 20 solid minutes and heavy activity on the glass off the bench. The pair might be necessary in tandem to tangle with Notre Dame's bevy of bigs…
- Atkins struggled vs. the Scarlet Knight's aggressive defense, turning it over five times (two egregious) though his penetration likewise bothered Mack, Carter (out tonight), and Seagers, defensively…
- Grant had his way with Rutgers four guards defensively, dishing out 10 assists, mostly in half-court sets. The junior combo guard is guaranteed to attempt more than eight shots as he did in the first meeting…
- Cooley killed Rutgers inside in January, scoring 19 points on 11 shots including three pick-and-roll bucket, with 10 rebounds. His four turnovers were uncharacteristically high, however…
- Connaughton enjoyed one of his best games this season vs. Rutgers, scoring 17 points on just eight shots (4 for 6 from downtown) with five rebounds in 34 minutes. The sophomore swingman hit three transition threes while adding a tip-in and tip-dunk to his effort…
- Notre Dame used just seven players, (neither current constants Zach Auguste nor Garrick Sherman played) with Knight playing nine minutes off the bench and Biedscheid 11, combining for six points (all from Knight). Biedscheid struggled mightily on the defensive end vs. Rutgers' assortment of veteran guards and small forwards.
- As noted previously, neither Eli Carter (20 points on 9 of 15 shooting) nor defensive game hero Scott Martin (took the game-ending charge on Carter with two seconds remaining and the Irish up one point) will play tonight. Carter is out with a broken fibula, Martin due to persistent knee trouble.
- After 15 Irish turnovers in the previous meeting, expect an active zone as well as a zone press that allows the in-bounds pass prior to double team, by the quicker, smaller Scarlet Knights again tonight.