Louisville will try to complete a perfect 8-0 month of February. Notre Dame has just one loss this month, 84-78 at Connecticut. The winner will be in position to grab at least a share of the Big East regular season title. The loser will need help, probably more than it can reasonably expect, to finish first.
This will be ND's second straight game against predominately zone defense. It shredded Syracuse's zone on Sunday, shooting 56% from three point range and 55% overall. Kyle McAlarney led the Irish with 30 points as he made a school record 9 three point baskets in 11 attempts. After viewing the game film, Louisville Head Coach Rick Pitino said, "I hate zones after watching that."
Don't expect Pitino to change a thing. The Cardinals have held their opponents to 30% shooting from long range, and they have the conference's second best overall field goal percentage defense. Their opponents make just 38% of their shots from the field. The Irish counter with the top three point shooting percentage in the conference, 40%, and the sixth best overall shooting percentage, 44%.
The Louisville zone is anything but passive. Notre Dame Head Coach Mike Brey said, "You're going to see the press, (then) back to the 2-3 zone. There's a lot of length, more length and activity than Syracuse's zone. I think their zone is the most active zone I've seen."
Eight Louisville players log 17 or more minutes per game, so applying relentless full court pressure and playing an active zone are not problems. If anyone gets tired, another talented player is ready to step into the game. As a result, you won't see many UL players among the conference leaders despite the team's lofty record and high placement in team statistical rankings.
Notre Dame handled Louisville's pressure when the teams met in South Bend last January. Notre Dame won 78-62. "What we did last year against their press is we broke pressure to score," said Brey. "That got us going, and we were successful. We have to remember to try and do that down there."
6'11" center David Padgett is Louisville's leader. The senior has the best field goal percentage in the Big East, an almost unbelievable 67.3%. Padgett doesn't shoot a lot, less than 7 times per game; but he's a post scoring threat that must be respected, and he is a good passer. When Louisville's half court offense is working, it's running through Padgett.
More importantly, Padgett is the leader on an otherwise young team that was prone to losing its focus early in the season. "He is absolutely a man, and you can tell he's unbelievably respected by those kids," said Brey. "He's brought some young, talented guys together. I have a lot of respect for him."
Free throws are often decisive in a close game, and that's one of Louisville's few vulnerabilities. Louisville has made 66% of its free throws, 11th in the conference. Notre Dame leads the Big East, making its free throws at a 76% clip.
This game won't decide the regular season Big East championship, but it will decide who will get to play for it. Louisville will play two more games, home vs. Marquette and a road finale vs. Georgetown. Notre Dame will be favored to win its remaining games, vs. DePaul and USF on the road and at home vs. St John's. If Louisville wins, its game against Georgetown will determine the champion. If Notre Dame wins, it will be rooting for Louisville to give Georgetown its fourth loss.
It's a big game.
Zach Hillesland and Ryan Ayers vs. Terrence Williams – Having solved his early season turnover problems, the 6'6" Williams is Louisville's most complete player. He is averaging 10 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists per game with an excellent 1.9 assist/turnover ratio in conference games. Hillesland and Ayers will split time covering Williams when Notre Dame plays man-to-man defense.
Luke Harangody on offense vs. Padgett on defense – Size has been the most effective defense against Harangody. Even when UL is in a zone, Padgett will find Harangody when the ball goes to the post. Will Padgett bother Harangody into a low shooting percentage, or will Harangody get Padgett into foul trouble?
Rob Kurz on defense vs. Padgett on offense – Padgett is efficient, so it's important to limit his scoring opportunities. Kurz must move him out of the post before he gets the ball.
Tory Jackson vs. the Louisville press – Jerry Smith and Edgar Sosa will take turns applying full court pressure on the Irish point guard. Most teams are happy to get the ball safely into the front court against the Louisville press. Jackson will want to create fast break opportunities. If he does, it will force Louisville into a half court game; and half court basketball is not in UL's comfort zone.
McAlarney vs. the Louisville zone – Louisville will be determined to prevent a repeat of McAlarney's performance against the Syracuse zone. If Louisville stretches the defense to stop McAlarney's long range shooting, he'll have opportunities to drive and score in the lane or draw a big man towards him and dish to a cutter. It's important that he make Louisville pay a price for overplaying his three point shot.
University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish vs. Louisville Cardinals
Thursday, February 28th, 7:00PM EST
Freedom Hall, Louisville, KY
Television – ESPN
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.
Internet Radio Links - http://und.cstv.com/sports/m-baskbl/nd-m-baskbl-body.html and http://www.xl950.com/