Preview – Notre Dame at Rutgers

The Fighting Irish will try to rebound from Wednesday's 84-78 loss at Connecticut when they travel to New Jersey to play Rutgers on Sunday. If statistics are to be believed, Rutgers cannot beat Notre Dame; but that's what statistics told us about Rutgers' chances at Pittsburgh three weeks ago. The Scarlet Knights won that game 77-64. Never take a Big East game for granted.

Luke Harangody, the Big East's leading scorer (24.3 ppg) and rebounder (12.1 rpg) leads Notre Dame into the RAC. Harangody, a leading candidate for conference player of the year, had another outstanding game on Wednesday. He had 32 points and 16 rebounds against the Big East's leading shot blocker, 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet. If Harangody is looking for a break from tall shot blockers, he'll have to wait a few more days because Hamady Ndiaye, the #2 shot blocker in the conference, will defend him on Sunday.

The Irish shot poorly in the second half of the UConn loss. They responded with scoring explosions after earlier offensive struggles on the road, 91 points vs. Cincinnati after a tough day at Marquette and 90 points at Villanova following the Georgetown loss. Will they do it again against Rutgers? They will if Rutgers doesn't rebound better than it has all season. Notre Dame has the top rebounding margin in the Big East. Rutgers is 13th. Giving the best outside shooting team in the conference extra chances to score is a certain path to a loss.

Rutgers (10-16/2-11) is looking for consistency. Since conference play began, its offense has produced a high of 80 points against Villanova low of 45 points twice, vs. USF and vs. St. John's. The defense surrendered 87 and 64 points in its two games against Louisville. If good Rutgers comes to the arena, the game will go to the wire. If bad Rutgers comes to the arena, the game will be over early in the second half.

Win or lose, Notre Dame (18-5/8-3) will hold its spot among the top four teams. A top four finish means a first round bye in the Big East Tournament and, therefore, fresher legs for the NCAA Tournament. More importantly, ND can stay one loss behind first place Georgetown, which enters the weekend with a 10-2 record in conference games. The Irish are tied for third place with UConn heading into the weekend, a half game behind 9-3 Louisville and two losses better than Pitt, Marquette, and Cincinnati. Sunday's game is a chance to keep the pressure on the other contenders as they move into the final third of the conference schedule.

Key Match-Ups:

Like Harangody vs. Hamady Ndiaye – In January, Connecticut and Georgetown bothered Harangody with 7 foot centers. Since then, Harangody has improved his mid range jump shot. On Wednesday, early baskets from the free throw line drew Thabeet from the basket and opened the lane for Harangody to drive or pass to cutters heading for the basket. Look for the same tactics against the Rutgers shot blocker.

Tory Jackson and Kyle McAlarney vs. Mike Coburn and Anthony Farmer – When Rutgers has played well, its guards have led the way. Like McAlarney, Coburn is an excellent shooter. He's making 42% of his shots from the field, 44% from three point range. Like Jackson, Farmer is a good assist man who isn't afraid to mix it up with the big men on the boards.

Notre Dame's bench vs. Rutgers' bench – RU's Corey Chandler is averaging 11 points off the bench in conference play. Two others, Byron Joynes and Earl Pettis, play substantial minutes. Neither scores much, but Joynes is getting 4.5 rebounds per game. Over the course of the season, ND's and Rutgers' benches have contributed similar numbers; but the Irish bench has emerged since Ryan Ayers moved there from the starting line-up. Ayers gives ND a shooter off the bench to help loosen defenses packed in the lane to stop Harangody. Luke Zeller is suddenly playing more aggressively, and Jonathan Peoples is building a tidy stat line in his 9.5 minutes per game.

Stat of the Game:

Assists – Notre Dame leads the Big East in assists, 17.27 per game. Rutgers is last, 9.92 per game. The RAC has always been a tough arena for the Irish. Whether it's the crowd's proximity to the court, the background, or just typical road woes, ND has struggled to shoot well at Rutgers over the years. Good passing gets easier shots closer to the basket, and that does wonders for the shooting percentage.

Game Information:

The University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. the Rutgers University Scarlet Knights

Sunday, February 17th, 12:00 EST

Louis Brown Athletic Center, Piscataway, NJ

Television – ESPN Full Court and selected regional sports channels

Radio - WNDV "U93", 92.9 FM in South Bend; WLS, 890 AM in Chicago, ESPN Radio "XL950", 950 AM in Indianapolis, and other outlets throughout the USA. Sirius Channel 159.

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