After losing a tense game to Connecticut, the Irish (19-5, 9-3) traveled to Piscataway to face Rutgers. Although Notre Dame was ahead most of the contest, the Irish let the Scarlet Knights back in it, leading to a three point victory.
There were both positives and negatives to be taken away from the close win at Rutgers. The Irish showed they can win despite struggles from the Big East's leading scorer in Luke Harangody. The sophomore forward was frustrated most of the night, going 5-of-16 from the field picking up only 10 points, his second-lowest total since November 16 vs. Monmouth when he notched eight points.
As Harangody struggled, Tory Jackson continued to have the best month of his Irish career, flirting with a triple-double in Piscataway. The point guard led all scorers in the contest with 17 points, while picking up 10 assists and eight rebounds. Jackson continues to create opportunities for his teammates, as he leads the conference in assists per game with 6.25.
Another promising sign for the Irish was the improved play of center Rob Kurz. The senior captain tallied 11 points, on par with his season average. What stood out from his performance against the Scarlet Knights, however, was his rebounding. Fighting off the stomach flu from a week earlier, Kurz made sure to box out his opponents, and pick up 14 rebounds, 11 of which were defensive. Additionally, the center swatted away three total shots, exerting his presence in the paint on defense.
The one glaring negative, which has not coincidentally plagued Notre Dame all season, was its propensity to allow its opponents back in the contest with a run. The Irish have had the tendency to miss a series of shots, and to make matters worse, allow the other team to dictate the tempo bringing them within striking distance. Sunday's game at Rutgers was no different. Mainly thanks to three pointers and quick transition baskets, the Scarlet Knights mounted a 13-point swing that gave them a five-point lead.
Thursday night against Pittsburgh (19-6, 7-5) will give Notre Dame a chance to work on finishing off its opponents and avoid these hazardous runs. Despite the Irish loss against the Connecticut Huskies last week, Notre Dame is still within striking distance at the top of the conference. With some Connecticut, Louisville and Georgetown losses down the road, the Irish could find themselves at the top of the Big East and secure a bye in the conference tournament. However, the Irish must first take care of business and overcome the Panthers.
The game makes for an interesting match up, as both teams are very similar, evident by their statistical similarities. In rebounding margin, the Irish are first in the conference with +8.5 boards per game, while Pittsburgh is second at +6.6. Additionally, both squads emphasize taking care of the ball on offense. Notre Dame leads all Big East teams with 18.67 assists per game, while Pittsburgh is third in the conference with 16.12 dishes. Furthermore, these two teams don't turn the ball over often. The Irish are second in assist-to-turnover ratio, while the Panthers are third in the conference.
The true discrepancy lies in team scoring and defense. Behind Harangody's Big East Player of the Year caliber season and Jackson's late surge, The Irish are atop the conference scoring mark with 80.2 points per game, while Pittsburgh is in seventh with a total of 74 points per game. Conversely, the Panthers are fourth in scoring defense giving up a stifling 62.7 per game, while the Irish are eighth, allowing 68.5 per contest.
When the Panthers have the ball, look for their forwards to pick up the majority of their points. Expect the first part of the duo, junior Sam Young, to establish his offense rhythm. With 17.9 points per game, he is their largest offensive threat, and third in the conference in scoring. The other half of the tandem, freshman sensation DeJuan Blair, is second on the team in scoring with 11.6 per game.
To counteract the Pittsburgh threat, Irish head coach Mike Brey will continue to confuse opposing defenses with a combination of man-to-man defense with a 1-2-2 zone that has proven to be effective against Notre Dame's opponents. Typically Brey will put a long swingman, most notably Zach Hillesland or Ryan Ayers at the top of the zone to use their range to distract the ball handler. When Brey employs the zone, he usually has a taller lineup on the floor as opposed to his man scheme that incorporates the shorter players.
If the Irish can stifle the Panthers frontcourt, and play a complete game on offense, look for the home streak to continue. On offense, expect Notre Dame to run its offense through Harangody because of the height difference between both squads. The tallest Panther started is Young, who measures in at 6-foot-7. If the Irish can pound the ball in the post, Pittsburgh could be in for a long and physical night. If the Panthers decide to double-team the sophomore forward, junior guard Kyle McAlarney could find himself open along the perimeter. Starting with this contest, the Irish are gearing up for the most pivotal stretch of games of the season. With the prize of a potential first-place finish in the conference in sight, expect the Irish to continue rolling at home.