Focus and Finish

In search of conference victory No. 2 away from home, the road leery Irish cannot afford a slip vs. Rutgers tonight in Piscataway.

The 15-6 Irish return to their former House of Horrors, THE RAC, for a matchup vs. the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers. The hosts have yet to win a game (0-8) in Big East action this season.

At 4-4 in conference play, today's contest represents Notre Dame's best chance at a second road win, and more importantly, ranks as a game in which the Irish cannot afford to lose if they hope to qualify for the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons.

Tip-off is set for 6 pm (ET) on ESPN2.

At a Glance

Notre Dame: 15-6 (4-4)
  • Losses: Northwestern (Chicago Classic) and Loyola Marymount; at UConn and at Cincinnati; vs. Syracuse; at Villanova
  • Best Wins: UCLA and West Virginia
  • Losses for the Selection Committee's Consideration: home vs. LMU; at Cincinnati.

Rutgers: 9-11 (0-8)
  • Losses: Nine in Big East play, though five have been on the road and two of the three home losses came at the hands of teams ranked in the nation's top five. Finishing 2-16 last season in conference play, Rutgers has not beaten a Big East team other than fellow cellar-dwellers DePaul and South Florida since March of 2008.
  • Best win: Princeton
  • Loss for the Selection Committee's Consideration: N/A. Rutgers would have to win the Big East tournament in mid-March to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Meet the Scarlet Knights

  • Mike Rosario leads Rutgers with 15.3 points per game. The free-shooting sophomore has seen his game fall off a bit after an impact freshman season in 2008-09, hitting just 36 percent of his shots and struggling through a curious slump at the foul line, as the scoring guard has converted on just over 68 percent of his freebies after knocking down better than 83 percent last season.

    An extremely high-volume shooter, Rosario has five 20-plus point nights to his credit this season, though none in Big East play (his best effort vs. top competition was a 22-point game vs. North Carolina in late December). Rosario has no conscious as a shooter when he's on his game, and gives the Scarlet Knights a puncher's chance vs. the Irish, but he's connected on just 32 of 116 shots vs. conference opponents this season.

  • Anchoring the middle is 6'11" center Hamady N'diaye. The senior ranks third nationally in blocked shots per game (4.7) and leads the Scarlet Knights in rebounds with 63 total in nine conference games. N'diaye (9.1 points per contest this season) played a major role in last season's closer-than-expected contest at the Joyce Center, bothering Luke Harangody in the post and holding the big man to a combined 10-42 shooting effort in two Irish victories last season.

  • Florida transfer Jonathan Mitchell adds scoring punch (better than 11 points per game in conference play). At 6'7" 225 pounds, Mitchell chips in just over five rebounds per contest and ranks as the team's better options from beyond the arc (34.6 percent on 82 attempts). Mitchell should be avoided in late game foul shooting situations as the junior has knocked down 22 of 24 attempts this season.

  • Freshman forward Dane Miller is Rutgers' streakiest scorer and with Rosario, could hurt the Irish if he gets rolling early offensively. Miller averages 8.6 points and 5.5 rebounds but has twice netted 26 in conference action this season (at Providence and more impressively vs. Villanova) while attempting more than 12 shots in three of nine Big East games.

  • James Beatty rounds out the starting five. The junior point guard is in his first season of action for the Scarlet Knights and has dished out 24 assists with 20 turnovers in nine conference games. Beatty leads Rutgers with a 37.3 percent clip from long range ( 22-59) but has otherwise been too passive, struggling to hit 40 percent of his total field goal attempts and has earned just 11 free throw attempts (hitting 6) in nearly 470 minutes of game action this season.

  • Junior guard Mike Coburn (6'0" 175 lbs.) adds seven points per game off the bench (recently replaced by Beatty in the team's starting five.

The Last Time

A sluggish Notre Dame team beat the Scarlet Knights 61-50 in the second round (the Irish received a bye) of the 2009 Big East Tournament. Harangody was held to a 3-17 shooting performance (and Big East low 7 points) but the guard trio of Tory Jackson, Kyle McAlarney, and Ryan Ayers totaled 33 points and Tyrone Nash added 9 in 21 minutes, winning the ugliest game of the conference tournament (both teams hovered near 35 percent from the field and the curiously disinterested Irish were out-rebounded by eight with their season and NCAA Tournament hopes at stake).

The Irish beat Rutgers late last February as well, winning 70-65 at the Joyce Center.

Stats and Streaks

  • Notre Dame has won the series' last five contests including two straight in Piscataway. Rutgers last win vs. the Irish came in the first round of the 2005 Big East Tournament, a loss that effectively removed the then 9-7 Irish from NCAA consideration.
  • Head coach Mike Brey is 3-3 at the Louis Brown Athletic Center with his last two victories (2007 and 2008) decided by nine and three points respectively, but Notre Dame has won just three times in 10 appearances at "THE RAC" since joining the Big East in 1995.
  • Though Irish guards Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough each committed uncharacteristic turnovers in Wednesday's loss at Villanova, the pair still ranks second and third nationally in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio (as a team, the Irish remain in first). Jackson ranks 15th nationally in assists at 5.8 per contest.
  • Luke Harangody has dropped to third place among the nation's top scorers (24.5 points per game) while Tim Abromaitis fell from first to third (48 percent) in the race as the nation's top 3-point shooter after a 2-9 effort vs. the Wildcats.
  • Notre Dame has been installed as an 8-point favorite for tonight's game.

Prediction

It may rank as the season's least appealing contest on paper - a 6:00 pm Saturday tip-off at winless Rutgers - but for the team, the program, and Irish fans nationwide, tonight's contest ranks as the single "must win" road game on the schedule.

At 4-4, Notre Dame sits exactly where forecasted by IrishEyes through eight Big East contests. A win today puts the Irish at 5-4 (the midway point of the conference season) and likely favorites in four of their next five contests. The fifth, a matchup at Seton Hall, Notre Dame is the better team, but their well-publicized road woes (two wins in their last 13 road tilts) make that contest a "Pick ‘Em" at best.

A win today puts Notre Dame in the driver's seat, with a 9-5 or (plausibly) 10-4 record well within its reach prior to the schedule's final five games, each of which pits the Irish vs. peer or superior opposition.

A loss returns the program back to irrelevancy with an NIT death march marking the season's final six weeks.

It's never a good sign when a January 30 road contest vs. a winless team is considered both a trap game and must-win situation, but that's the scenario the Irish face today.

Notre Dame 73 Rutgers 66


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