They will have their work cut out for themselves. The Crimson Tide roll into South Bend undefeated and ranked No. 5 in the nation. Tip-off is scheduled for 9:00 EDT on Thursday and ESPN will have the television coverage. For Notre Dame, it'll be the second big contest in a row to put up or shut up. The Irish proved they can play with the big boys when they downed then-No. 19 Maryland 81-74 in Washington, D.C. Notre Dame's paucity of high profile opponents on the non-conference schedule made this week an important one. Head coach Mike Brey stated at Media Day before the season that this team's goal was to gain entry into the NCAA Tournament. Another win over a top-ranked team will have the Irish's tournament resume looking good come March.
"Our guys are very aware of that," Brey said on Wednesday at his weekly teleconference about the importance of Thursday's contest. "There's no question about that. I haven't had to put that up in lights. As we got into the locker room after Winston-Salem State game, I let them know what this week could potentially mean. No. 1: for this team to develop and gain confidence and gain an identity. No 1A: for a potential resume."
Notre Dame faces a stiff challenge on Thursday. Alabama sits at 7-0 on the year after beating Tennessee State 78-60. But the Crimson Tide's schedule has been far from difficult. Alabama's best win, besides a victory over Xavier, was a 72-60 victory over a 4-5 Iowa team. Also, this will be their first true road trip of the season. What isn't a question is the talent on the Crimson Tide roster and it certainly has caught the attention of Brey.
"The one thing that sticks out is that I don't know if we've had more NBA scouts in our building for a game," Brey said. "They have four guys who are very draftable and maybe even first-round draft picks. They have that kind of potential. In terms of sheer ability, they are very impressive. We have a little bit of feel for them. We played them last year. It's not completely foreign territory for us."
It all starts with point guard Ronald Steele. Mentioned on various pre-season All-American teams heading into the year, the junior has backed the hype up with solid showings. Steele is averaging 12.6 points per game and a team-high five assists a contest. He's battled tendinitis in his knee this year, which made him sit out two games. But he returned in the win over Tennessee State and No. 22 makes the offense go for the Crimson Tide.
"Again, it goes back to Steele," Brey said. "When you have an old guard, an experienced guard, you have a chance to be real good and beat everybody and play well on the road."
The Notre Dame frontcourt has played quite well this season. The Irish are second in the Big East in rebounding margin, besting their opponents by an average of 12 boards a game. Alabama also is formidable down in the paint, pulling down 30 defensive rebounds a game which is good for first in the SEC.
They are led by 6-10 forward Jermareo Davidson. The senior forward is a monster down low, averaging a double-double with a team-high 15 PPG and 10.7 RPG. The rebound number is No. 1 in the SEC. Davidson affects games in more ways than one, racking up an incredible 4.67 blocked shots per contest, also first in the SEC and fourth nationally in Division 1A. Alabama has more trees in the paint with 6-8 Richard Hendrix (12 PPG and 8 RPG) and 6-6 Alonzo Gee (14.9 PPG).
Another area to watch is the Notre Dame offense vs. the Crimson Tide defense. The Irish are No. 1 in the Big East in scoring, averaging 84 points a game. Something will have to give because Alabama is No. 1 in the SEC in field goal percentage defense. The Crimson Tide are holding teams to 33 percent shooting and 58 points a contest.