Next Up: Syracuse

Notre Dame wasn't in a must-win situation this past Saturday against Villanova. But it was the biggest game by far of the Big East season. The Irish, despite shooting 34 percent and committing 18 turnovers, won a hard fought 66-63 contest over the Wildcats to move to 17-4 on the season and 5-3 in the league. The reason it was so important is because Notre Dame hasn't won on the road in 2006-07.

The Irish, undefeated at home this year, will experience life on the road for the next few games. First, there is a travel date to one of the toughest places to play in the Big East. Syracuse (15-6, 4-3) will host No. 19 Notre Dame on Tuesday night. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 PM and ESPNU will have the television coverage.

After the Orange contest, the Irish will go on the road to face South Florida and DePaul. On the season, Notre Dame is 0-3 in true road games. They've struggled mightily away from the Joyce Center. The next three games should tell a lot about this team and where it'll be seeded come NCAA Tournament time. A 2-1 or 3-0 showing would do wonders and possibly could have them playing in Chicago the first two rounds of the Big Dance. A 1-2 or 0-3 performance would more than likely kill those hopes and hurt the team's chance at a bye in the Big East Tournament. To earn this, they would have to be in the top-four in the conference. Currently, Notre Dame is fifth, half game back of 5-2 Louisville.

The Irish are 5-3 in the league because of some clutch play down the stretch by Colin Falls and a few unlikely sources in the Villanova game. Ryan Ayers, a contributor off the bench, scored five straight points with about two minutes remaining to turn a 60-57deficit into a 62-60 lead. Falls led all Notre Dame scorers with 23 points, including four late free throws that proved to be the final margin of victory. For his effort, Falls was named to the Big East Weekly Honor Roll. More impressive in the gutty win was the absence of leading scorer Russell Carter. The senior guard, who scored 14 points on just 3-of-11 shooting, did not play the final 7:12 of the contest. It'll be interesting to see how Carter responds on Tuesday night in the Carrier Dome.

After four straight conference wins, Syracuse did not have a great week. They lost on January 21st to St. John's 64-60 at Madison Square Garden. Looking for redemption, the Orange held a 14-point lead with just under 10 minutes remaining on the road to Louisville. But the Cardinals stormed back for a 76-71 win, sending Syracuse to their second straight loss. The Orange are now tied for seventh in the Big East and 2.5 games behind leader Pittsburgh (7-1). At the beginning of the week, they were just a game back of the Panthers. It's not like Syracuse can't win on the road. They beat No. 15 Marquette 70-58 in Milwaukee back on January 7th. The two consecutive defeats add more importance to protecting the home court on Tuesday against the Irish.

Under head coach Jim Boeheim, the Orange are known for their vaunted 2-3 defense. They force teams to beat them from the outside. On the year, Syracuse is fifth in the Big East in three-point field goal percentage defense. Conversely, Notre Dame is second in the league in three-point shooting. What should favor the Orange is that Irish point guard Tory Jackson is shooting just 15 percent from three-point range. Suspended Kyle McAlarney was shooting 46 percent from the same distance. If Jackson can penetrate the zone defense or knock down a shot or two from behind the arc, it should bode well for Notre Dame.

Syracuse is led by Demetris Nichols. The 6-8 senior forward is leading the Big East in scoring at 18 PPG. He's shooting 47 percent from the field and if the Irish foul him, Nichols drains the free throw shot at a clip of 84 percent. He's part of a group that is second in the league in rebounding offense. 6-9 senior Terrence Roberts pulls down 8.3 boards a contest to go along with 10 PPG. The rebounding number is good for sixth in the conference. Eric Devendorf is the trigger man of the offense. The sophomore guard averages 13.5 PPG. He's eclipsed the double-double mark in points eight of the past nine games. Top Stories