Notre Dame (21-6) welcomes in No. 16 Marquette (22-7) to the Joyce Center on Saturday. Tip-off is scheduled for 3:30 PM and ABC will have the national television coverage. Both teams are 9-5 in the conference, tied for fourth in the league. The top four seeds get byes in the Big East Tournament. If the Irish win, they would hold the tiebreaker over all the other contenders battling for this spot because of head-to-head victories. Notre Dame ends the regular season at Rutgers but the Scarlet Knights are 10-17 overall and 3-11 in conference action. Barring a huge upset, the battle between the Irish and the Golden Eagles will determine who gets the bye.
"There's no way you probably thought it would unfold this way," head coach Mike Brey said. "At Christmas, with how we were playing, I really thought then we could play for a bye. When we lost (Kyle) McAlarney, I wasn't quite so sure of that anymore. But how this group re-organized itself in January, we talked about it a little bit about trying to chase down a bye."
One huge advantage is the venue for Saturday's contest. The Irish are 17-0 at the Joyce Center and riding a 19-game winning streak dating back to last year. It's not just that Notre Dame has been good at home. It's the manner in which they're doing it. In the 17 victories, 13 have been by double digits. In Tuesday's 78-54 smashing of DePaul, the Irish raced out to a 40-22 halftime lead. A big intermission advantage has been critical to the Joyce Center success for Notre Dame. The last time the Irish lost at home was to Marquette last season.
"I think this group has got comfortable here," Brey said. "I'll say this: I think our home crowds have helped us. Maybe it's our style of play and how we play energizes the crowd even more. We've put a little more energy into the building. It's two-fold. Our fans are into it more. Our team plays a different style, or at least that's what I hear in the community. Once you get something going, it sustains itself. Players walk into the locker room and believe that they're going to do it. It becomes a habit."
Saturday's game will be the last time the home fans will be able to salute the two seniors on the team, Colin Falls and Russell Carter. The Senior Day activities adds a little bit more to the significance of the contest. Falls will leave Notre Dame the career-leader in made three-point field goals. He's also picking the right time to heat up. Falls has scored 14 points or more in ten straight games and has become the No. 1 scoring option down the stretch.
This distinction was previously held by Carter, who still is second in the Big East in scoring at 17 PPG. He's had some shooting woes as of late but he's a threat anytime he touches the ball. Carter can hit tough three-pointers with defenders in his face and also drive to the bucket with his athleticism. Both players are looking to lead the Irish to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2003. A win on Saturday over Marquette on Senior Day could clinch this hope.
"I think I'll be pleased with the evolution of their careers," Brey said. "They've been different paths. Colin was a key guy right away. He's delivered for us time and time again. Russell's story is a great story. We took him late. We weren't sure how he was going to develop. He didn't play for two years. But he kept swinging and battling and he's become a key guy for us. You feel good. Both of them have improved in our system. They are both going to graduate and earn some money playing this game.
"What I would really like to see, and we still have some work left to do, is their faces on Selection Sunday. They have not played in one of those tournaments. Their teammates really want it for them."
Marquette is coming off a hard-earned 80-67 victory over Villanova on Monday. The victory snapped a three-game losing skid for the Golden Eagles. They were in contention for the Big East regular season championship until a defeat at Georgetown two weekends ago. This was followed by losses at DePaul and at home to Louisville. The Cardinals hit a long three-pointer at the buzzer for the upset. But the ship was righted against the Wildcats.
Part of the reason was because of Dominic James's 18 points. The sophomore guard has been struggling with his shot, especially from three-point range. James is just 6-of-36 (16 percent) from behind the arc in the past eight games. He is vital to the Golden Eagles success and if his shot is not falling, look for him to use his quickness to get to the basket. Another player to watch is Jerel McNeal. The 6-3 sophomore is second on the team in scoring at 14.8 PPG. He's picked up the slack for James as of late, scoring in double figures in the past eight contests. The Golden Eagles backcourt duo versus Falls and freshman point guard Tory Jackson might decide Saturday's outcome.
"Those two guys really click," Brey said of James and McNeal. "They defend and can get into the lane and how they change ends. We've done a good job at it but this will be the ultimate challenge in transition. We've played a lot of teams that run on misses. This team runs as well on makes as on misses. That's a big concern. I'm as concerned with McNeal as James. They're both real good."