Dance Card

In a two-part feature, IrishEyes breaks down the upcoming 18-game Big East slate as Notre Dame attempts to fight its way back to the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame finished its 13-game non-conference schedule with an acceptable 11-2 record. A Chicago Classic loss to (currently) 10-1 Northwestern and a shocking home upset at the hands of Loyola Marymount marked the only blemishes on what proved to be a soft pre-conference schedule.

Accepting that the season-end Big East tournament performance and overall strength of their opponents are additional determiners, its nonetheless likely that a 10-8 Big East finish would put the currently unranked Irish in position for a return to the Field of 64.

But a daunting task awaits:

Must Wins

Four games vs. teams that should finish below the Irish in the final Big East standings. A loss to any from this group would put the Irish in a difficult spot with five much tougher home matchups and nine road contests remaining.

Providence – December 30:

  • Situation: The conference opener for both squads and a rare 9:00 weeknight tipoff for the ESPNU audience.
  • Pitfalls: SG Marshon Brooks can light it up when hot and PG Sharaud Curry is a veteran that can control the game. The Friars are a tough cover for Irish guards Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough.
  • Truth: If the Irish can't hit the ground running and handle the still-developing Friars, a team that lost four starters and five of its seven top players, they're in serious trouble over the next three months.

DePaul – January 23:

  • Situation: The Irish should be well-rested for this Saturday afternoon contest after facing Syracuse in South Bend on the 18th.
  • Pitfalls: Glass-cleaning C Mac Kowshal should be healthy in what will likely be his eighth game back after a foot injury.
  • Truth: The game is sandwiched between two extended breaks (four days and three days) and the Irish are simply better than the Blue Demons, a team destined for the bottom quarter of the conference standings.

South Florida – February 7:

  • Situation: The game will be a rematch of the early January tilt in Tampa. Notre Dame will have two days off to prepare for the Bulls (the Irish face Cincy in South Bend on February 5).
  • Pitfalls: Dominique Jones is one of the best big guards in the Big East and big man Augustus Gilchrist is much-improved.
  • Truth: South Florida is a worse road team than the middling Irish, winning just 2 of its previous 18 road games (both at Rutgers).

St. John's – February 14:

  • Situation: The teams will have identical schedules in terms of rest with the Irish returning home from a February 11 game at Seton Hall.
  • Pitfalls: The Red Storm took down the Irish (and provided the largest single black mark on the team's tourney resume) in Madison Square Garden last year. Swingman D.J. Kennedy can get to the bucket and Paris Horne can defend the perimeter.
  • Truth: St. John's has won 3 of its last 15 conference road games and were destroyed by the Irish on Senior Day last year in South Bend. The Red Storm possess athleticism but were a truly bad basketball team late last season.

Two out of Three Will Suffice

Considering Notre Dame's well-earned reputation as a poor conference road team, the Irish should be a slight favorite to mild underdog in each of the three road traps below. Winning 2 of the 3 games in this category would go a long way to an acceptable 4-win season on the road.

at South Florida – January 5:

  • The Situation: The second half of a two-game road trip that begins on Saturday, January 2 at Connecticut, Notre Dame's Tuesday night tilt in Tampa could be crucial as the Irish will likely look to bounce back from the season's first conference loss. The Bulls will be well-rested for their Big East home opener after opening conference play at. Louisville six days prior.
  • Pitfalls: Junior guard Dominique Jones has all-Conference potential as a triple-double threat. The Bulls are an improved squad from last season and have traditionally garnered a big-name pelt at home (#6 Marquette last year; Syracuse in '08; #19 ND in '07; Georgetown in '06) regardless of the home team's talent level.
  • Truth: The game could serve as springboard to a surprising season for the Irish, who would likely return to South Bend at 2-1 with a matchup vs. #6 West Virginia awaiting the following Saturday. The Irish have struggled (1-1 with two tight games) in their last two trips to Tampa.

at Rutgers – January 30:

  • The Situation: Game #2 of a two-game road trip, Notre Dame will continue east to Piscataway after a battle with #8 Villanova. Rutgers will have returned after a three-game road trip as a team that has already faced at least five ranked opponents.
  • Pitfalls: SG Mike Rosario can light it up and the Scarlet Knights have two shot-blockers underneath. Mike Brey once lost four straight vs. Rutgers in games played on the east coast.
  • Truth: While the game at South Florida is inherently tricky as an early January contest and just the team's second true road game, the season will be in full swing by the time the Irish hit the dreaded RAC. NCAA teams win under the conditions presented above.

at Seton Hall – February 11:

  • The Situation: This Wednesday night ESPNU contest is Notre Dame's only road game over a 16-day, four game span.
  • Pitfalls: SG Jeremy Hazell will challenge Luke Harangody for the conference scoring crown. The Irish vertically challenged Irish guards don't possess a physical matchup for Hazell on the wing. Sophomore Herb Pope is a solid shot-blocker and returning starter Robert Mitchell played well vs. the Irish at the Joyce Center last season.
  • Truth: Likely a toss-up and sure to be one of the highest scoring games of the season. Notre Dame has won three straight vs. The Hall in Jersey including an epic blowout (95-68) of the Pirates in 2008. Head coach Bobby Gonzalez's group is the toughest opponent of the trio in this category.

Pressure from their Peers

Four games vs. three relatively evenly-matched opponents. The Irish must defend their home court and hope to steal one of two on the road vs. three traditional powers.

at Cincinnati – January 16:

  • The Situation: Notre Dame's third road game; the Irish will have a week to prepare for the Bearcats who'll return home on two days rest after a two-game road trip vs. beatable Seton Hall and St. Johns. Cincinnati will have been tested by UConn and Pittsburgh entering the contest while the Irish will have also faced the Huskies as well as West Virginia.
  • Pitfalls: Cincinnati physically overwhelmed the road-weary Irish in early February last season and the Bearcats return six of their top seven players from that contest, including massive sophomore Yancey Gates.
  • Truth: Another tough backcourt matchup for the Irish vs. a Big East team that should finish in the middle half of the conference. Gates can give Harangody trouble and the Irish will be tested for 40 minutes. This game could determine if a seventh Big East team qualifies for the Dance in March.

Cincinnati – February 4:

  • The Situation: The teams will do battle for the second time in 18 days (the Irish will face four teams between games with the Bearcats including current top 10 members Syracuse and Villanova).
  • Pitfalls: Same as above, though the Irish will be returning from a two-game road trip for this 9:00, ESPN2 matchup.
  • Truth: The Irish must earn a split and have a decent chance at sweeping the Bearcats if they can focus in mid-January on a week's rest. Expect an ugly battle for the second go-round between the two.

Pittsburgh – February 24:

  • The Situation: The Panthers enter this contest on two-days rest after a home matchup with Villanova and the trip to South Bend follows a nine-day, three-game stretch vs. West Virginia, Marquette, and the Wildcats. Notre Dame will have had a week off after a trip to Louisville.
  • Pitfalls: The Panthers were hit hard by graduation and early NBA defection, but still have 3-4 regulars who'd start for the Irish. Jamie Dixon's team would be easier to face in early January than late February, though its hard to argue with a game slotted after seven days off.
  • Truth: If they Irish finish ahead of both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati they'll likely earn a trip back to the NCAA Tournament.

at Marquette – March 6:

  • The Situation: Two days after what will be an emotional Senior Day send-off for Luke Harangody, Notre Dame travels northwest to its personal House of Horrors, the Bradley Center. The Irish have lost four consecutive games at Marquette including all three played in the Brey era. It's the final game of the regular season for both and Senior Day for the home team.
  • Pitfalls: Marquette took a hit with the graduation of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, and Dominic James, but Lazar Hayward remains swingman Jimmy Butler has stepped into a starting role.
  • Truth: Marquette has been mentally tougher than the Irish over the years and the home crowd will be in a frenzy for what could be an NCAA elimination game (for both squads). This would serve as the most surprising win of the four peer contests at this juncture.

Click here for Part II. Top Stories