Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Preview: Louisville at Notre Dame

Both victorious in five of the teams’ last 10 matchups, the Irish and Cardinals prepare for another slugfest in South Bend.

GAME NO. 15: NO. 23 NOTRE DAME (12-2) VS. NO. 9 Louisville (12-2)

-- Date: January 4, 2017
-- Place: Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame, Ind.
-- Time: 9:00 pm (ET)
-- TV: ACC Network – WMYS-MyTV, broadcast over-the-air on channel 69, AT&T U-Verse channel 69, Xfinity channel 15 and Dish Network channel 69. 
-- Opponent Nickname: Cardinals
-- Head coach: Rick Pitino (757-262; 403-134 at Louisville)
-- Location: Louisville, KY
-- 2015-16 record: (23-8; 12-6 in the ACC)
-- Point spread: Louisville is favored by 1

CREAM OF THE COACHING CROP

Battle-tested and beyond with home wins over No. 6 Kentucky and No. 20 Purdue, plus a neutral site victory in Indianapolis against No. 25 Indiana, Louisville’s lone defeats to date occurred against undefeated, No. 2 Baylor (66-63) and No. 11 Virginia, 61-53 at the YUM! Center.

The Cardinals have played Kentucky, Virginia, and Indiana, consecutively, leading up to tonight’s contest in South Bend.

Over the last five seasons, Louisville head coach Rick Pitino has guided his squads to the following NCAA Tournament finishes: Final Four, NCAA Championship, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight – and voluntary ineligibility last season, the latter a decision made by Pitino that ultimately sacrificed last year’s veteran crew for a shot at a deeper run this winter.

Pitino’s foil in the opposing coaching box is Notre Dame’s Mike Brey. The two have battled head-to-head 12 times in the last eight seasons as members of the Big East and ACC winning six games apiece. Remarkably, six of the 12 contests have gone into overtime – 12 aggregate overtimes, that is. Both teams have won three of the six extra session affairs.

SCATTERED, SMOTHERED, AND COVERED

Key to Louisville’s weekend victory over Indiana was the conclusion of the first half in which the Cardinals finished on a 14-3 run (taking a 12-point lead in the process) while holding the Hoosiers without a field goal over the final 5:30 of the first half. Indiana hit just seven field goals during the game’s first 20 minutes.

Translation: tonight’s chief challenge is a defense that ranks as the top dog on Notre Dame’s daunting season slate.

“They shoot it great. They’re No. 1 in the nation in foul shooting, they’re No. 1 in turnover ratio,” said Pitino of the Irish. “They shoot it, pass it, don’t miss their free throws; don’t turn it over and with a high amount of assists.”

“They’re an interesting group,” he added. “They put great pressure on you. As well as Indiana shoots the basketball, this team (Notre Dame) is even better at it because of the way they pass the basketball.”

Regardless of Pitino’s praise, possessions tonight will be at a premium. Louisville ranks first nationally in defensive efficiency (the Irish are 11th offensively despite matchups vs. two top 20 defensive foes, Villanova and Purdue) and the Cardinals held Purdue, Kentucky, Virginia, and Indiana to an aggregate 38.8 percent from the floor.

HOPING FOR A SPARK…OR TWO

Tonight’s contest marks the annual “locals” conference affair. That is, Notre Dame’s students remain on break, which means tickets are available, including those usually reserved for the absent band members.

In general the students’ absence has led to sparsely attended affairs inside the Purcell Pavilion. But in other instances, notably Connecticut in January 2008 and against No. 7 Duke in 2014, Notre Dame’s local fans not only bought up the empty seats, but provided a massive home crowd boost which buoyed Brey’s Irish en route to upset victories.

Conversely, there were approximately 1,000 empty seats (officially 851) in last year’s 86-82 loss to Pittsburgh in a January 9 ACC home opener.

"We need our fans," said Brey. “A 9:00 o’clock game and the students not here is not an excuse. That's not an excuse. We played Pitt the other day on break and it was rocking in that place. We've had success here against Louisville when the place has been rocking. We don't have our students, so we need our sixth man to help us.

"If they help us, we've got a great chance of winning."

Fan support serves as a legitimate weapon in college basketball, but it pales in comparison to the potential spark provided off a home team’s bench.

Over the weekend that came from freshman T.J. Gibbs (seven points, an assist on a three-pointer in 12 minutes) and sophomore Rex Pflueger (3 points, 2 boards, 2 assists, a steal, and a block in 25 defensive-oriented minutes). Contributions from both are crucial tonight, as is the potential return of weapon No. 8, a perimeter player that’s proven much more successful on the familiar Joyce Center floor than away from home – sophomore sharpshooter Matt Ryan.

Ryan’s home outings inside the Purcell Pavilion this season have produced a 22-for-46 shooting effort from long range. Conversely, he’s attempted just six three-point shots in five games played outside of South Bend to date (3-6).

Ryan’s a weapon from anywhere inside 25 feet. He might need two such bombs to loosen up the Cardinals sticky first half defense.

STATISTICS OF NOTE

-- Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell broke out of his admitted slump with a 25-point performance Saturday against Indiana, connecting on 8 of 15 field goal attempts. Mitchell hit just six of 23 in previous outings against Kentucky and Virginia.

-- Seven-foot junior forward Anas Mahmoud has blocked 12 shots over his last four outings for the Cardinals. Mahmoud tied a season-high with 10 points in the weekend victory over Indiana.

-- The Cardinals were a combined 7-for-32 on three-point shot attempts (21.8 percent) in losses to Baylor and Virginia. Conversely, they made good on 18 of 45 (40 percent) in wins over the Boilermakers, Wildcats, and Hoosiers.

-- Notre Dame’s top three free throw shooters, Matt Farrell, Steve Vasturia, and Bonzie Colson are a combined 116 of 126 from the charity stripe this season, 92 percent.

-- Notre Dame’s two losses this season have both occurred in large part due to free throw disparity. Villanova and Purdue combined to shoot 39 of 45 from the charity stripe vs. a 13-14 effort from the Irish.

-- In Notre Dame’s last two wins over Louisville (2015 and 2016), the Irish hit 34 of 41 free throw attempts and out-rebounded the Cardinals a combined 67 to 58.

The latter pair of statistics is relevant tonight. If the Irish can simply attempt more free throws than Pitino’s aggressive Cardinals while breaking close to even on the boards, ACC win No. 2 is likely for Brey’s bunch. In turn, an Irish win would drop the title-contending Cardinals to 0-2 in ACC play.

O’Malley/Prister Prediction: Notre Dame 70 Louisville 68


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