If you don't pay attention to the rest of the conference, start. As it unfolds throughout January and February, the conference season adds context to every Notre Dame basketball game. There is more to it than simply watching the standings. Teams and coaches become very familiar with each other as the years pass, so they don't surprise each other. Grudges carry from year to year, making otherwise innocuous match-ups more intense. Even the worst teams have one or two excellent players, and that makes road games particularly tough even when you think you have the better team. If you don't follow the conference, you don't know what to expect.
The December schedule features a few tough games inserted among a series of hopelessly overmatched mid-major opponents happy to have a nice payday. The conference season brings, at most, two or three mismatches over the course of sixteen games. That's true in every conference, but the Big East's propensity for physical play makes the sixteen game slate a gauntlet. Everyone will take a loss or two we won't have expected, and surviving losses in trap games has as much to do with becoming the champion as overall ability does.
As the season progresses, I'll try to point you in the right direction via some highlights. If I pique your interest in a team or a player, follow up by looking at a few box scores on the Big East website. If you want to get really nutty, watch a conference game or two that doesn't involve the Irish.
Two teams have surprised me – Providence and Marquette.
Surprisingly, Providence is 2-0. The Friars feature the highest scoring offense in the conference by nine points over second place West Virginia. They feature the #1 and #3 scorers in the league so far, power forward Herbert Hill at 24 ppg and guard Weyinmi Efejuku (Oh yeah? Well Efejuku, too.) at 21 ppg. Those two are excellent players who will continue to play well, but Providence doesn't have the depth throughout the roster to make a serious run at the championship. PC will be a dangerous team all year because it has two guys who can score a lot in any given game.
Marquette started 0-2 before going to Storrs and beating UConn Wednesday night. Losing at Providence was no great sin, but following that game with a home loss to Syracuse has me wondering if I've been wrong about the Warriors being a contender for the championship. Tom Crean's teams are usually very physical, but they've been whipped on the front line in both losses. Marquette relies on its guards for scoring. If the bigs don't control the boards and play great defense, Marquette's three fine guards, Wesley Matthews, Dominick James, and Jarel McNeal, will have to score 55-60 points a game; and that isn't going to happen very often.
Notre Dame is off to a decent start at 2-1. I don't understand why Louisville isn't a contender based on its talent, so I was very pleased to see the Irish beat the Cardinals handily. Take particular note of ND's defense in the post. 7'1" David Padgett had 24 points against Torin Francis last year. Rob Kurz, Luke Zeller, and Bamm-Bamm held him to 4 points this year. Height will be a problem for the Irish at times, but the post players don't get pushed around anymore.
The loss at Georgetown was pretty ugly, but basketball is always ugly when a team can't hit open shots, let alone the contested ones. ND played an excellent team on the road, and things got out of hand early. The important part about the Georgetown game was whether the Irish would recover against a very good West Virginia squad. The Mountaineers came into the JACC at 3-0 and left at 3-1. Mission accomplished, at least for one day.
If the Irish take care of business vs. Seton Hall on Sunday, they're poised for a nice run through a fairly easy middle third of the schedule no matter what happens at Villanova next Wednesday. They will beat the Pirates by more than 10.
A few other team notes… Georgetown has the top scoring defense so far at 52 points per game. ND is 7th at 64 ppg. ND is also 7th in scoring offense at 63 ppg. Providence, UConn, and Pittsburgh are the top three in rebounding margin. The Irish are 6th.
I mentioned Hill and Efejuku at #1 and #3 in conference scoring. Seton Hall's Brian Laing is #2, so it will be interesting to see if ND can contain him like they did the #4 scorer, WVU's Frank Young. ND's leading scorer, Russell Carter, is 12th in the conference at 15.5 ppg.
Geoff McDermott (Providence), Jeff Adrien (UConn), and J.R. Inman lead in rebounding. ND's Rob Kurz is 9th.
League leaders will shuffle around until consistency prevails somewhere around the sixth or seventh games. Notre Dame isn't likely to have contenders for individual stats leadership, but I expect it to climb the team rankings as the season progresses. That's why I like this team. Everyone contributes. If you like basketball, get on the ND bandwagon now.
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