The rope that is Notre Dame's Big East regular season schedule is getting shorter with every game.
The Irish (14-11, 5-8) are tied for 10th in the league with five games remaining and the thinking from many, including Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey, is that the Irish need to finish with a 9-9 conference record to have a serious shot at an NCAA Tournament invite.
In order to do that, the Irish will need to win four of their final five games. The season-ending stretch begins on Saturday afternoon at Providence and with contests against Connecticut (24-2, 12-2) and Villanova (21-5, 9-4) still to come, they cannot afford to leave themselves without any margin of error after this weekend.
Providence (16-10, 8-6) bounced back from consecutive blowout losses to Connecticut, Villanova and West Virginia with back-to-back wins over South Florida and Rutgers. But the Friars suffered another big loss in their last game out, losing at Louisville 94-76 on Wednesday.
Providence is currently sixth in the league, but with no realistic shot of jumping into the conference's top four, the Friars are concentrating on remaining in the top eight. Providence is one of four teams with six league losses, but are a half-game ahead of Syracuse (19-7, 7-6), West Virginia (18-8, 7-6) and Cincinnati (17-9, 7-6) in what appears to be a four-team race for the final three spots in the top half of the conference.
The Irish would love to get into that race and with a win over the Friars they certainly would give themselves a chance, but Notre Dame will need to do something that it has not done in 2009: win a road game.
After a non-conference road win at Loyola-Marymount and a victory at DePaul in their Big East Conference opener on New Year's Eve, the Irish have lost seven straight road contests.
Notre Dame snapped its seven-game losing streak with strong defensive efforts at home against Louisville and South Florida. The Irish held the Cardinals and the Bulls to 57 points apiece, much better than the 86.4 points they have allowed away from the Joyce Center in their last seven road games.
Notre Dame will need to play defense the way it has at home recently, but a similar effort will not come easy against a Friar team that Brey called ‘one of the best offensive teams in the league.' Providence is third in the conference in scoring at 79.0 points per game and features four players averaging in double-figures.
Senior guard Weyinmi Efejuku is averaging 13.7 points while sophomore guard/forward Marshon Brooks is scoring 12.2, junior guard Sharaud Curry 11.1 and senior forward Jonathan Kale 10.4. In addition, seniors Jeff Xavier (9.6), Randall Hanke (9.0) and Geoff McDermott (8.0) are all scoring at least eight points a night.
"They have a number of different individuals that can get into double-figures and score and shoot the ball and that is why they've gotten up into the 80s and 90s," Brey said. "Guys who can shoot it, guys who can take off the dribble, big guys who are good with the ball. They're a very talented offensive team that can get to 90 very easy."
The Friars are shooting 45.3% from the floor and have crossed the 90-point barrier five times this season and went past 80 another five times. But Providence is dead last in the conference in scoring defense, allowing 75.7 points overall and 79.1 in Big East games. McDermott leads Providence with 8.8 rebounds per game while Curry is averaging 4.6 assists.
Following a disappointing loss to Northeastern in the season opener, Providence has won 12 of its last 14 home games with the only other losses at the Dunkin' Donuts Center coming against Marquette and Villanova.
While this game is not an elimination game for Notre Dame, it is a pivotal one that could either boost the Irish to a fine finish or be the one that fans look back on as the point where the season truly ended.