Uphill Climb for Irish

Five league losses by a total of 20 points can sink a lot of hearts and minds inside the Notre Dame men's basketball team. The 1-5 mark in the ultra-competitive Big East have fans sounding pessimistic instead of hopeful for a turnaround. For the players themselves, they know there is only one way to approach Saturday's contest against sixth-ranked Villanova.

"We just have to keep laying it on the line," guard Colin Falls said after Tuesday's double overtime loss at home to Georgetown. "Maybe we just have to get lucky once. It seems like we're getting unlucky right now. I know you have to make your own luck but it would be nice to get away with one."

Chris Quinn was more succinct with his assessment.

"If we get negative, we're going to get blown out on Saturday," the senior guard dejectedly predicted.

The Irish will try to avoid this outcome as they welcome in the Wildcats to the Joyce Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. and the game is being televised on ESPN2. For Notre Dame, it'll be a tough task securing conference win number two and getting the season back on track. Villanova comes into the contest 14-2 overall and 5-1 in the Big East, which is tied for second in the league behind 5-0 West Virginia. The Wildcats escaped an upset bid at South Florida 49-46 on Tuesday night. Villanova played without second leading scorer Allan Ray in that contest, who was suffering from a hamstring injury. Irish head coach Mike Brey expects Ray to play and knows exactly what his Notre Dame team will be facing on Saturday night.

"We play a hell of a team," Brey said. "That's my first thought. They're quick, athletic, guard the heck out of you and certainly are very explosive off the dribble and shooting the three-point shot. It's a very confident team."

Randy Foye spearheads the Wildcats speedy four-guard lineup. The senior is leading the team in scoring by averaging 20.7 points per game and five RPG. If Brey is correct in his assumption, Ray's return will bring 18.3 PPG back to the starting rotation. Junior Mike Nardi and 6-0 freshman Kyle Lowry each contribute 11 PPG to make this guard group arguably the best in the nation. Senior Jason Fraser, a 6-9 athletic forward, plays the part of the big man in the lineup while 6-8 Will Sheridan sees 24 minutes of action a game. Villanova head coach Jay Wright has his team eyeing a possible deep run in the NCAA Tournament and Brey knows what priority number one is against the quick guards of the Wildcats.

"Transition defense and getting back and not letting them run by us," Brey said. "We need to do the best we can to limit dribble penetration. When you play against four guards, that can become even more of a task. I'd like to see us get into a pretty good offensive rhythm and score and get some low post touches. You are not going to just shut this team down. You have to stop them from getting the big spurts."

The wrenching loss to the Hoyas saw Notre Dame's Russell Carter once again re-establish himself in the rotation. After playing only five minutes combined in contests against Providence and Marquette, the sophomore guard played 34 minutes and contributed eight points, four rebounds and multiple hustle plays that kept the Irish in the game. Brey said on Thursday that his gut told him that Carter and not freshman Kyle McAlarney would start versus Villanova.

"I thought he was more active defensively," Brey said of Carter's performance in the Georgetown game. "I know there was a spotlight on some of his forced offensive plays in the Providence and Marquette game, which made us go in a different direction. We played pretty well in both games without him but we need him. We need him to read the defense on offense.

"What I was impressed with him was how he moved throughout the possession on defense and worked and gave us that athletic guy. It's probably still the learning curve of a guy who is being thrown into it. His attention was better probably because he wasn't starting and playing. But we do need him."

The Wildcats four-guard lineup also could bring a smile back to Irish center Torin Francis's face. The senior has shot the ball six times each in the past two games. In the Georgetown contest, Francis was hampered by foul trouble and the big presence of 7'2" Hoya center Roy Hibbert. The senior has still been a consistent force rebounding the ball, averaging 9.3 in Big East play. But with Villanova's small lineup and Fraser and freshman Dante Cunningham standing only 6'9", Francis might see his scoring total rise.

"I think we can try to establish him," Brey said of Francis. "It's a matter of how the game is going. You can go in with pre-conceived notions but I think it was very difficult for him with Hibbert behind him to get stuff. Hibbert is a tough guy to get around. We can use some inside scoring and inside production, no question about it. We always want to throw it in there. One of the thing we've been doing is have him come out and ball screen and roll instead of having him post and fight with a 280 pound guy.

"What's the weather like in a game? Is it a game to establish him and get him going? If not, he's coming out to ball screen. We still need him to roll. We still need him to offensive rebound, which I think he's done a nice job of getting us second shot. Certainly, we need him to rebound on the defensive end."

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