The Irish will travel to New Jersey this weekend to take on Rutgers (10-18, 3-12). Tip-off is scheduled for 4 PM and ESPN will have the television coverage. The stakes are clear for Notre Dame: beat the Scarlet Knights and earn a bye in the Big East Tournament in New York City, which starts on Wednesday. If the Irish lose, a Syracuse win over Villanova on Saturday would propel the Orange into the fourth spot while Notre Dame would slip to the fifth position and have to play on the first day against the 12th seed. Syracuse and the Irish are tied at 10-5 in the league standings but Notre Dame owns the tiebreaker over them because of a head-to-head victory. The one caveat is that the Orange play at 2 PM and the outcome of their game will be known by tip-off time in New Jersey. Notre Dame, who is in the driver's seat, is going to concentrate on continuing the late-season success.
"We've talked about going into New York winning five in a row and with 11 league wins," head coach Mike Brey said. "We've only had one other team with 11 league wins. The focus has been their stuff and their business. They've been playing pretty well and they continue to do that. Whatever happens, I'm sure it'll be announced in the arena. I'll let them know. I don't think there's any big secret there."
The Irish have had a week off after a physical win over Marquette last Saturday at the Joyce Center. Two freshmen shined on Senior Day. Luke Harangody scored 22 points and grabbed 13 rebounds while fellow freshman Tory Jackson chipped in 21 points, seven rebounds and seven assists to spearhead Notre Dame to the victory. The Irish were a perfect 18-0 this season at the Joyce Center. On the road, they are just 2-5 but won their last contest away from South Bend, beating Cincinnati 76-64.
On Saturday, Notre Dame will be facing one of the worst teams in the Big East. Rutgers has lost six of seven and rank at the bottom of several league statistical categories. They are last in scoring offense, which is never a positive when going up against the highest scoring team in the conference. The Scarlet Knights are also at the bottom of field goal percentage, three-point percentage, assists and steals. Rutgers has two Big East home victories on the year. Syracuse, DePaul, Georgetown, West Virginia and Connecticut have come into the Louis Brown Athletic Center and left with wins. They didn't qualify for the Big East Tournament but could exact a season's worth of frustration on Saturday against the Irish.
"It's their Big East Tournament and NCAA Tournament game," Brey said. "But it's also huge for us. It's on ESPN. It's sold out and they'll have their best crowd of the season. They really haven't been too fond of us when we've come through the RAC. But it's a great challenge for us before we head to New York. I want us to go for it. I don't want to play not to lose. We're going to let it rip. That's when we've played the best on the road."
JR Inman leads the anemic Scarlet Knights offense. The 6-9 sophomore forward averages 12 PPG and also is first on the team in rebounds, pulling down seven a contest. He's scored in double figures in seven of the past eight games. Marquis Webb is the only other Rutgers player averaging in double figures at 10 PPG. Adrian Hill, a 6-8 senior forward, chips in nine points a game and six rebounds a contest. A win on Saturday would be the biggest all season for these players. Nine of their 12 losses have been by 10 points or more. Notre Dame is preparing for an crazed atmosphere at the RAC.
"New Jersey and the people there appreciate basketball," Brey said. "It's a basketball state, although lately it's been a pretty good football school. But traditionally, the I-95 corridor is a great corridor for basketball. I think you have a fan that follows it. It's a true Big East area. They've been hardened on Big East basketball. The construction of the building is such that the building is straight up and they're right up on top of you. It's conducive to a good home court situation. No matter how they're doing at Rutgers, and Saturday will be a good example, they come out and support their team and appreciate basketball."