Critical Test Awaits Irish

After three straight losses to open up Big East play, the Notre Dame men's basketball team was searching for answers on how to get over the hump. A double overtime loss at Pittsburgh, late game breakdowns in Chicago to DePaul and the inability to stop Syracuse's offense put the Irish in a 0-3 hole in the conference. A 92-77 win last Saturday over Providence ended this mini-losing streak and finally put a hard earned W into the win column.

"After a win, you have an atmosphere that's very conducive to that feeling," head coach Mike Brey said. "We had guys laying it on the line and putting it out there but not being rewarded in the first three games. You like to see them rewarded and then to build upon that."

Notre Dame has been getting it done on the offensive end. In four league games, the Irish are averaging 84.5 points per game and shooting 45 percent from the field, including 44 percent from behind the arc. Notre Dame's two main guards have also stepped it up in conference action. Chris Quinn is averaging 24 PPG in Big East play, up from his season mark of 17 while Colin Falls is racking up 19 PPG in the four league games, an increase from his year average of 13.7.

The problem? The Irish have been allowing opponents 84.5 PPG and better than 46 percent shooting from the field in conference play. Notre Dame will look to improve on that mark Friday night as they travel to Milwaukee to take on Marquette. Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m. and the game is being televised on ESPNU. The Golden Eagles come in the contest with a 13-5 record that includes a mark of 3-2 in the Big East. The high power duo of Steve Novak and Dominic James can cause opposing defenses major problems and Brey said his team has been working on their shortcomings.

"On defense, our rotation and sliding over is still something we can be better at," Brey said. "We've addressed that. The good thing about a couple of days in between games is that you can work on things in a high intensity level. When you have three-game weeks or a Saturday-Monday, we can't come in and do rotation/sliding drills all practice long."

The Irish will need this time to come up with a plan to stop Novak. The 6-10 senior forward can light it up from anywhere on the court. The best example of this was his 41-point and 16 rebound performance in the Golden Eagles' 94-79 win over third-ranked Connecticut back on January 3rd. Novak is averaging 16 PPG for the season and is shooting 45 percent from three-point distance.

The Golden Eagles are a young team reliant on a couple of stud freshmen. James is the team's second leading scorer at 15.4 PPG and has been riding a hot hand as of late. He scored a career-high 29 points in Marquette's last contest, a 82-79 win over DePaul. This earned James the Big East Rookie of the Week Award, the second time he has received this honor.

"James has given them another gear and a guy to play off of," Brey said. "He's playing as well as any guard in the league right now. To their credit, and especially James, they're playing really fearlessly."

The other freshman playing well for the Golden Eagles is Jerel McNeal. The 6-3 guard is the squad's third leading scorer at 11.2 PPG and is shooting 45 percent from the field. McNeal is not the only Marquette player burning the nets. As a whole, the Golden Eagles are connecting on 40 percent of their shots from behind the arc, hitting eight a contest. Marquette made 13-of-19 (68 percent) shots from long distance range in their win over the Blue Demons this past Tuesday. This aspect of the Golden Eagles' game causes some concern for Brey.

"They are shooting the ball from the three-point line as good as anyone right now," Brey said. "When I first thought of them this year, I didn't think as a team they would use the three-point line as much as they have been. But they are using it to a high degree and very efficiently."


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