The Final Frontier

Notre Dame has never played in the Big East Championship game, a national showcase event played Saturday night at Madison Square Garden. Standing in the way of that elusive goal is arguably the best of the six semi-finals foes Mike Brey's Irish have faced.

What a way to go out…

Or better put, and in question form: "What way will they go out?"

Identical to the last three seasons, vanquished in the semi-finals? Or earning the right to play for a title -- the final Big East championship before basketball's consistently best and easily its most compelling league of the last 35 years disbands?

"Unbelievable," said Brey of tonight's two-game showcase at the World's Most Famous Arena. "I was talking to our staff at breakfast this morning, look at the matchups. They blow away any other league. Are you kidding me? Just the sounds of the matchups, and then certainly tomorrow night, I just told our guys, I said, coming out on Friday night for the semifinal game, we've been ... this is our fourth time. It's electric.

"I know it's the last time, and we're trying to get our money's worth out of this thing."

For fans of the program -- the few diehard and the many March bandwagon purveyors alike -- the only way for Notre Dame to get their money's worth out of the 2013 Big East Tournament is to get the semi-finals monkey off the program's back.

Standing in the way this time is one of the nation's best, hottest, and most well-rounded basketball teams. And one that is no doubt the best on one end of the court.

"Coach…it was Dentyne."

"Stick with him! Think of it as chewing gum…by the end of the game, I want to know what flavor he is."

Hickory Huskers head coach Norman Dale's classic challenge to his point guard in the movie Hoosiers serves as a fitting theme to Rick Pitino's charges in 2013.

Because as Brey would say, "Louisville guards the heck out of you."

Technically, they're the nation's best, ranking No. 1 in defensive efficiency. In terms of the eye test, while there's no legendary shot-blocker on the back end, Pitino's entire 10-man rotation is a joy to watch if you're a fan of position defense, ball disruptions, bumping cutters in the lane, chasing guards off screens, and playing the passing lanes.

All of that of course is augmented by Pitino's famed "Mother-in-law" zone press, coined because of its propensity for "constant pressure and harassment."

Pitino noted last night his team's goal is for 30 to 35 deflections over the course of each game. In the quarterfinals win over Villanova, the Louisville head man proudly stated his Cardinals produced a record number 58 (fifty-eight?) -- the most of his career, at any level of coaching.

Notre Dame's offense ranks as the nation's best at distributing the basketball, but late shot-clock situations and subsequent execution is generally in short supply vs. Louisville.

But there's a way around that unfortunate end, too...

Rebound…then Run

Knocked last night from the tournament by the Irish, Marquette head coach Buzz Williams said of Brey's Irish earlier this season, "They are much more efficient in transition than people give them credit for. If they can score in the first six or eight seconds, they will."

They'll have to. Guards Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins are a combined 27 for 95 from the field vs. Louisville over the last two seasons. Take away Grant's minute-to-win-it explosion vs. the Cardinals in the oft-reference five overtime thriller, and the junior combo guard has hit just 8 of his last 40 field goal attempts vs. the Cardinals perimeter attack.

Notre Dame has to hold Louisville to one-and-done offensively, then get out and go if it hopes to top the 50-point barrier with the game still in doubt.

Standstill for Connaughton -- Seriously

Most Irish observers -- or those that join the basketball bash sometime in early March -- will enter tonight's contest thinking suddenly sweet-stroking swingman Pat Connaughton serves as the team's best hope for an upset.

While Connaughton's touch is doubtless needed, an overall quality performance from the 6'5" athlete is more important, tonight pitted vs. the nation's must undervalued super-sub, Luke Hancock.

Successful on 13 of his last 23 offerings from beyond the arc, Hancock's best attributes as a player are elsewhere: he's chippy defensively, blessed with great hands, feet, and rare confidence in his ability. At 6'7" 215 pounds, the George Mason transfer can guard four positions for Pitino's interchangeable defensive rotation.

If Connaughton can match Hancock's impact on both (maybe either?) ends, Notre Dame can prevail, even if the two-game Irish marksman doesn't go off from long range as he has both of the last two contests.

Sherman and Cooley: Together Again?

Senior power forward Tom Knight has proved invaluable in this tournament. Freshman backup Zach Auguste continues to show flashes. But if the Irish are to take down the Big East's defending champs, Jack Cooley and Garrick Sherman will have to return to, and remain in form, respectively.

Sherman riddled Louisville off the bench in two games this season, hitting for a combined 31 points on 14 of 19 field goals in 46 minutes. He was the difference last night vs. Marquette as well, scoring 16 on 12 shots with six boards in 24 minutes. Most important, Sherman for the first time this season, appeared fully vested in the proceedings -- leading with passion and emotion both between and after whistles.

Cooley has struggled for two weeks dating back to a March 1 trip to the University infirmary for the flu. He's been below double digits in both points and rebounds in four of five games played since, and has attempted just four free throws in that five-game span.

The senior showed signs of life late last night, collecting six second half boards including three on the offensive end. He'll need to play his best game in nearly a month if the Irish are to score the seismic upset, as Cooley has historically struggled when pitted against Louisville center Gorgiu Dieng, the latter producing produced 54 points, hitting 21 of 28 shots vs. Cooley and the Irish in their last three meetings; Cooley just a combined 29 points on 12 of 24 shooting in the matchups.

Competitive Grace

Its a term used appropriately by the program's football coach, Brian Kelly to describe players that execute calmly while playing the game with passion and purpose.

In basketball parlance, its finishing when mildly contested but eminently makable shots. Its converting at the rim or getting fouled -- and draining the charity shots. Its hitting the open 3; making the extra pass; collecting the 50/50 loose ball.

Its what Notre Dame has learned to do in recent seasons and must do throughout tonight's 40 (or more) minutes of basketball.

It's what Louisville does for a living.

Since losing to Notre Dame on February 9 in five overtimes, Louisville has not blinked, winning by 14, 18, 18, 21, 5 (at Syracuse), 16, 16, and last night, 19 points.

If Notre Dame wins this, their sixth and final Big East semi-finals appearance, it will rank as the best story and top victory in their 18 seasons of conference competition.

The Irish in 2013 don't have an ounce of quit in them, but its a tall order tonight against the defending tournament champs, a 2012 Final Four team, and one on the short list to make it to Atlanta in 2013 as well.

Look for a fight to the bitter end...

Louisville 69 Notre Dame 59 Top Stories