Just in Time for the Tourney(s)?Sophomore swingman Pat Connaughton finished his last regular season game well, albeit long after Louisville's defense had decided the outcome. Connaughton -- who had missed 34 of his previous 41 three-point offerings before hitting a cosmetic 2 of 5 in the season finale -- provided the difference last night, turning back multiple Rutgers' rallies with clutch offerings from the arc.
At his best, Connaughton strokes it from the corners, cuts to the hole when his guards penetrate late in the clock, and finds a way to mix it up on the offensive glass. He's the best weak side defensive rebounder not named Jack Cooley, and has added a three-dribble drive (to borrow a phrase from head coach Mike Brey) to his offensive arsenal.
But Connaughton was complete non-factor vs. Marquette two weeks ago, missing all four of his shots in 31 nondescript minutes.
He won't hit 6 of 8 from deep tonight as he did vs. the Scarlet Knights, but 12-plus points and five or more boards vs. a quality defense is an essential contribution from the athletic sophomore if the Irish are to score the mild upset.
Another Good Knight?In a similar situation to Connaughton is the still-developing senior Knight, who earned just 19 minutes vs. the Golden Eagles (3 for 7, 7 points, 5 boards) in the first meeting. An encore performance of last night's career-bests, 18 points and 9 boards, is unlikely, but Knight needs to play well enough -- and stay away from his third foul long enough -- to stay on the court and contend with Marquette's big men Davante Gardner and Jamil Wilson.
Knight's defense vs. high screen-and-rolls is the best, or at least most consistent among Irish big men. He'll need to be on point in that regard vs. Marquette guards Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan tonight.
The Return of Jack and Jerian?While Irish fans can't expect a combined 40 points and 14 boards from Connaughton and Knight, its fair to assume Jack Cooley (two points in 25 minutes) and Jerian Grant (3 for 10 shooting, no points in the first half) will be more engaged from the outset
The all-Big East pair did not end the season well, Cooley was just 3 of 9 at Louisville; Grant 2 of 12. They're a combined 9 of their last 27 from the field. If that continues tonight, Notre Dame's final Garden Party will end early.
Key for Cooley is his post defense. Marquette senior Chris Otule enjoyed a career outing in the last meeting, most of it early and at Cooley's expense. (Cooley was suffering from the flu and played just 11 minutes). Tonight's contest needs to be one-side in the other direction, as Otule, a 5-point per game scorer that hit for 16 on perfect 8 for 8 shooting two weeks ago vs. the Irish.
Otule preceded that outburst with zero points vs. Syracuse, and then followed it with zero and four points in his next two outings. He cannot be allowed to contribute tonight to the Golden Eagles' cause, offensively.
Grant will be contested on every dribble -- if he's able to get to the line early and create a bit of space with penetration, the junior's patented step-back (and sometimes standstill) jumpers from long range will become viable again.
A Quality Twenty-Five from the Trio?Notre Dame's bench threesome of center Garrick Sherman (16), power forward Zach Auguste (10) and swingman Cam Biedscheid (11) gave Brey nearly 40 combined minutes last night, most of it essential thanks to foul trouble to Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant (Biedscheid's minutes) and the struggles of Cooley (Sherman).
Combined last night they scored 10 points with seven boards, two assists, two steals, and a blocked shot. That's 22 statistical contributions in their 37 total minutes. Notre Dame will need at least that tonight, with perhaps 25 to 30 combined points/rebounds/assists/blocks/steals from the trio enough to make bench time equate to quality floor time vs. a deep, versatile Marquette group that will showcase nine or more in its rotation throughout the contest.
Atkins to Find Openings?Continuous ball pressure and harassment. Penetration designed to wear him down. Offensive movement when he's guarding off the ball. Irish junior point guard Eric Atkins has his hands full tonight, with 38-plus minutes of action vs. aggressive veteran guards Vander Blue and Junior Cadougan.
The Irish leader can win more often than not if he follows the path of least resistance: that is, get out and go after a Marquette miss. Atkins is a far better ball-handler and finisher in open court situations than he is as a penetrator late in the clock.
He continually finds open shooters in transition and has the ability to finish full-speed where many modern guards -- at least those that don't finish above the rim -- falter. But it will be tough sledding for Atkins if the game is played close to the vest. That is, if The Burn is used too often vs. a defensive-minded squad more than happy to guard for the duration of the shot clock.
The more Atkins (and Grant) run early, the better chance they'll maintain a rhythm in the half-court offense late.
As the guards go, so too goes the Irish offense.
Final ThoughtsThe Golden Eagles are good, but they're a far better second-round matchup for the Irish than a third game vs.No. 2 seed Louisville. and both are better for Notre Dame to face prior to Saturday night than polished Georgetown, the three teams that shared the Big East regular season crown with 14-4 records.
Notre Dame enters as underdogs of just two points, a nod from Las Vegas that Marquette's handling of the Irish two weeks ago was rooted in an oddly hot shooting night, a once-in-a-career contribution from center Chris Otule (8 for 8 when he bookended the Irish contest with zero point performances) and the absence of a healthy Jack Cooley.
Cooley has scuffled of late and more than a few poor shooting teams have found the range vs. the Irish this season -- a team that follows the scouting report defensively and sometimes suffers as a result.
If they played five times, Marquette would likely win three, but like Notre Dame, the Golden Eagles are far better at home than elsewhere, and the Irish have confidence and momentum after last night's effort. If the Irish can keep Marquette's bevy of competitors from the offensive glass, a mild upset and berth in the conference semi-finals should follow.
Though the point spread suggests differently (its "easy" to take Marquette favored by just two), I'm going with history as my guide, and Notre Dame rarely wins hotly contested tournament games, especially not two straight.