Next Up: Providence

Notre Dame's loss last week to DePaul was a downer on a few levels. First, there's a big difference between being 7-4 in the Big East and 6-5, especially when the top four seeds in the league tournament get a first-round bye. Also, it puts added pressure on the team to be successful in the final five games to sew up an NCAA Tournament bid. Mike Brey has tried to avoid the Big Dance discussions.

"We don't talk in-depth," Brey said about the team's tournament hopes. "That's just getting way ahead of ourselves with a lot of basketball left. Since we've been back from Chicago, we're in position but we have work to do. Period. Don't listen to anyone speculating. Just listen to me and we have work to do. We'll be fine. The most specific thing we talked about was seeding in New York. That's the first tournament you're trying to seed yourself in right now."

They'll get their first chance to improve their conference standing on Thursday night when they welcome in Providence (15-8, 5-5) to the Joyce Center. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 PM and ESPN will have the television coverage. The Irish sit at 18-6 overall and 6-5 in the Big East. The loss to the Blue Demons sent them out of the rankings for the first time in nine weeks. The positive news is that they return to play at home for the first time since a 66-63 victory over Villanova back on January 27th. Notre Dame is 15-0 this year at the Joyce Center and have 17-game winning streak there dating back to last season.

On the injury front, the week off should give Rob Kurz and his hobbled ankle some time to heal. In the DePaul contest, the junior forward scored 15 points and nine rebounds but had his game-winning shot blocked at the buzzer. Also, Russell Carter has been slowed because of a hip flexor problem. The senior guard injured it last Wednesday in practice going up for a shot. Carter, who is second in the league in scoring at 17.8 PPG, has been struggling to find his shot recently. He's just 17-of-50 (34 percent) in his last four conference games, which is 11 percentage points below his season average.

"I think he's better," Brey said of Carter's injury. "I can't say he's 100 percent. He's in and out of practice. It's one of those things that you just keep treating. Hopefully we're close to 100 percent by tomorrow."

Carter might have to be 100 percent if Notre Dame plans on beating Providence. The Friars are .500 in the Big East and just a half-game back of the Irish in the conference standings. They are as desperate as Notre Dame for a victory. Providence is 56th in the RPI and has two wins over teams in the top-50. They lost this past Saturday night at league-leader Pittsburgh 74-68 after holding a six-point second half lead. The Friars have struggled mightily on the road, just like the Irish. They're only Big East road win was at Connecticut. A victory in South Bend on Thursday night will be a big boost for their NCAA Tournament resume.

"I think our guys are very aware of that," Brey said of the Friars' tournament hopes. "Everybody is looking for wins now. Everybody is scratching and trying to get wins now. Our guys are aware that Providence has a lot to play for and we have a lot to play for."

Providence is a young team full of talent and potential. The Friars start four sophomores and have only one senior in Herbert Hill that is in the playing rotation. Most of these youngsters played last year and it was a difficult season. Providence went 12-15 and missed out on the Big East tournament. The learning experience paved the way for the 2006-07 success.

"I think the advantage they have is that all those guys were thrown to the fire last year," Brey said. "They had some tough nights and didn't make the Big East tourney but they are better off this year because they're able to play through mistakes and get game experience. You really have a team that's young but not really young because of all the minutes they've played last year and this year. This group has played together for awhile. They're talented."

The Friars can score the basketball with the best of them. They rank second in the conference to Notre Dame in scoring offense. It's a safe bet these two teams will be putting alot of points up on the scoreboard on Thursday at the Joyce Center. Providence can put the ball in the hoop but they've had big problems preventing teams from doing the same. The Friars are second to last in the league in scoring defense.

Providence relies a lot on Sharaud Curry. The 5-10 sophomore leads the team in scoring at 17 PPG and also contributes five assists a contest. Brey thinks that Curry is playing as well as any point guard in the Big East. He's scored in double figures in all but one contest played in and is the key to the Friars offense.

"I worry about Curry," Brey said. "Curry really hurt us in two games last year. We won both of them but keeping him out of your lane and slowing him down is key as well."

Herbert Hill is the big presence down low. The 6-10 fifth-year senior is fourth in the conference in scoring at 17 PPG and fifth in rebounding at 8.4 boards a contest. Hill will be a big challenge for Kurz and Luke Harangody in the paint area. He's racked up nine double-doubles on the year. Notre Dame also will be aware of Gregg McDermott. The 6-7 sophomore can do a little big of everything. He's first in the league in assists at 5.4 a contest and third in rebounding at 9.5 boards a game. McDermott contributes 11 PPG to makes matters worse for opposing defenses.


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