The Irish will make a short journey west to Chicago on Thursday night to challenge DePaul (13-11, 4-6). Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM and ESPN will have the television coverage. Why is this game important? Notre Dame is just a game back out of fourth-place in the Big East. The top four seeds get byes in the league tournament. The Irish have three road contests left but two of them are against Cincinnati and Rutgers, who have combined to go 3-16 in conference play. Notre Dame has three games remaining at the Joyce Center, where they are 15-0 on the year. If the Irish can pull off the win against DePaul, there's a possibility to run the table to insure a bye in New York City and a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament.
"When we came back from South Florida, we talked about six games left, three on the road and three at home," head coach Mike Brey said on Wednesday. "We talked about positioning, league standings and what it means for the NCAA Tournament. You can't get caught looking too far ahead but there's so much projection that I try to diffuse that daily with our guys and work at the task at hand. Because our schedule is broken up, it puts you into a position of slowing down and practicing and not getting ahead of yourself into seeding at New York and beyond."
In the loss to South Florida, Notre Dame had the services of Rob Kurz but not at full strength. The junior forward battled for 19 minutes of action but did not score a point. Kurz has been nursing an ankle injury sustained in a win over Villanova two weeks ago. He didn't play in the Orange win and clearly was not at tip-top shape in the loss to the Bulls. For the season, Kurz is averaging 13.4 PPG but just nine points a contest in Big East play. Brey said he'll start on Thursday.
"He's practiced some, not full all the way yet," Brey said of Kurz. "I expect him to give us almost a full practice today. He's better than he was on Saturday. To say that he's 100 percent, I wouldn't say that. But he's playing. Take two aspirin and call me in the morning. He's ready to go."
The opponent on Thursday, DePaul, might be college basketball's version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. On some nights, the Blue Demons look like a top-25 team. On other evenings, they look lost. DePaul has beat No. 8 Kansas this season, one of the most talented squads in the country. They also downed Villanova in the same gym Notre Dame lost 102-87 earlier this year. However, defeats to Northwestern and UAB, both .500 teams, stand out on the schedule. The Irish are expecting a fierce effort from the Blue Demons on Thursday night.
"We're preparing like we're going to get the Kansas effort over there," Brey said. "When I look at DePaul's talent level and scouting report, I think you can argue no one has better players than them one through ten. Maybe Pitt but you can make an argument with talent. When that thing gets in gear, which we've seen against Kansas and on the road against Villanova, it's scary. That's how we prepare because that's the effort we'll get."
One potential problem for DePaul is their ability to defend the long ball. The Blue Demons are third to last in three-point percentage defense in the Big East while Notre Dame is second in shooting from behind the arc. They'll rely on the trio of Wilson Chandler, Sammy Mejia and Draelon Burns to get them over the hump. Chandler, an athletic 6-8 sophomore, leads the team in scoring at 14 PPG and pulls down six boards a contest. Mejia, a 6-6 senior guard, contributes 13 PPG and six boards a contest. Burns is the hottest of the three. The 6-4 junior has scored a career-high 26 points in each of his last two contests. Burns has scored 20 points or more in three of four games. Brey thinks DePaul will surely get up for a ranked opponent at home.
"We're a great scalp," Brey said. "St. John's and South Florida stormed the court on us. It's a national TV game and they're still playing for positioning. I expect that kind of effort. That's why protecting the paint was such a big thing for us in the pre-season because we knew when we got into the Big East season, besides West Virginia, everyone is driving it into the lane or cutting in there and then going for the offensive rebound."