13 days and three losses (by a total of six points) later, the Irish stand at 6-8 in league play (17-10 overall) and on the outside of the NCAA Tournament Bubble.
Tonight's matchup with No. 12 ranked Pittsburgh affords the Irish their first chance to bounce-back from the season's toughest loss, a 91-89 double overtime defeat at Louisville one week ago tonight.
As it has been in both of the last two losses and for the final segment of the defeat at Seton Hall, Notre Dame will again be without the services of All America candidate Luke Harangody for tonight's contest. Harangody suffered a bone bruise in his right knee during that 90-87 loss to the Pirates and has missed subsequent defeats at home vs. St. John's (69-68) and at Louisville.
Pittsburgh has won five straight including two wins vs. Top 10 teams West Virginia and Villanova.
Tonight's contest will be televised on ESPN2 with tip-off set for 7 pm (ET). Below is a closer look at tonight's matchup between the Panthers and the Irish.
Meet the PanthersThe Panthers boast the Big East's No. 1 scoring defense (61.4 ppg) and rank third in the conference in terms of defensive field goal percentage (39.5 percent allowed). Pittsburgh ranks second defending the arc, allowing a 30.5 percent success rate against three-point shots.
Head coach Jamie Dixon has pulled a rabbit out of his hat this season, successfully replacing Co-Conference MVP and rebounding machine DeJuan Blair, standout point guard Levance Fields, and the program's fourth career scoring leader in versatile forward Sam Young.
The Panthers, picked ninth in the Big East's pre-season poll, own the conference's longest current winning streak (5) and sit within two games of first place, holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over both Syracuse and Villanova perched atop the conference standings.
- Ashton Gibbs leads the Panthers in scoring at 16.4 per contest and minutes played (35.5). The sophomore from Scotch Plains, N.J., would be a candidate for the league's Most Improved Player Award if not for the unexpected development of Notre Dame junior forward Tim Abromaitis.
At 6'2" 190 pounds, Gibbs has netted more than 20 points in three of the Panthers last four games. Gibbs can score off the dribble but it's a three-point shot that begins at his chest and often ends in the bottom of the net that the Irish will need to limit tonight. He's hit better than 38 percent from long range for the season including a 6-9 effort against Syracuse's suffocating zone in early January.
His clutch three-point bucket at the end of regulation led to the Panthers 98-95 triple-overtime victory over West Virginia 12 days ago.
- Brad Wannamaker ranks second on the squad in scoring (12.3), rebounding (6.1 per contest) and minutes per game (32.7) while pacing the Panthers with 4.4 assists per contest. Though the junior from Philly has suffered a few off-shooting nights in conference play, he's a capable scorer that has played well vs. top competition in 2010 (24 vs. West Virginia, 20 vs. Louisville, 19 at UConn).
The 6'4" guard has a knack for getting in the lane, hitting the glass, and earning freebies from the line, leading the Panthers with 143 free throw attempts (nearly 73% on the year).
- Senior Jermaine Dixon (10.3 points and 3.9 boards in nearly 29 minutes per night) could draw the assignment of shadowing the hot-shooting Abromaitis tonight. The lefty off-guard is a candidate for the Big East Defensive Player of the Year honor and holds the distinction of limiting such conference stars as Jeremy Hazell (1-7 in 32 minutes), and Austin Freeman (13 points in 27 minutes) well below their normal level of production.
South Florida head coach Stan Heath was the first to employ a smaller defender on Abromaitis, putting solidly-built point guard Chris Howard on the sharpshooter. The Panthers could certainly follow suit tonight, though Dixon's ability to defend could be utilized to stymie the penetration of Irish guard Ben Hansbrough as well.
At 6'3" 200 (measured the same as the Bulls' Howard) Dixon would have to contend with the size and motion of Abromaitis who ranks second on the Irish in free throw attempts (behind Harangody). Dixon is a borderline poor three-point shooter and Irish defenders would be advised to give up the long-range shot rather than contend with Dixon in penetration. His constant presence near the lane and on the offensive glass could be an issue for Irish guards Wednesday night.
- Center Gary McGee is one of the Big East's best offensive rebounders, grabbing 27 of his teammates' errant shots over the last seven contests. The 6'11" 250-pound junior from Anderson, Indiana serves as the team's last line of defense, blocking 12 shots over the last four outings (which includes wins over Villanova and West Virginia) and has a patient offensive game.
McGee is a quality low-post passer and he has the ability to carve out space on the low block. Irish defenders can have success vs. the first-year contributor if they focus on staying between him and the basket, as it's an automatic bucket for McGee vs. the smallish Notre Dame interior if he's afforded room toward the rim (he's at a shade under 65% from the field on the season, rarely venturing from the low post).
- Athletic forward Gilbert Brown is third on the Panthers at 11.3 points per game though he's one of the team's few inconsistent players. At 6'6" 210, Brown can elevate with best of them but he's a sporadic rebounder (3.3 per contest) and hasn't put together back-to-back double figures scoring games since early January (scoring 20-plus on three separate occasions in that span).
Brown could have multiple authoritative finishes at the rim tonight if the Irish aren't focused defensively.
- Off the Bench: 6'5" Nasir Robinson is an aggressive finisher inside. The sophomore forward averages better than 25 minutes per game off the pine, scoring 6.6 points and grabbing 5.7 boards (third on the squad). Freshman guard Travon Woodall is a capable backup who's earned nearly 20 minutes of playing time in conference play while freshman forward Dante Taylor is an additional banger (6'9" 240) with athleticism and, more important, increased confidence, that could trouble the Irish if McGhee suffers early foul trouble. Senior transfer Chase Adams should also see time in the backcourt.
- Whom to Foul?: Gary McGhee is a shaky free throw shooter (59.4 percent), as is backup freshman big man Dante Taylor (58.9 percent). Backup forward Nasir Robinson has hit just 21 of 50 attempts this season (42.9 percent).
On the other hand, ball handlers Gilbert Brown, Jermaine Dixon, and Brad Wannamaker each connect at a 70-72 percent clip while Ashton Gibbs is automatic, knocking down 88 percent of his 134 free throws this season.
Previous MeetingsNo. 22 Notre Dame fell to the third-ranked Panthers in Pittsburgh, 93-80. The Irish, still ranked despite a four-game losing skid, led by six at the half on the strength of six Luke Zeller three-point buckets. Zeller would not score in the second stanza and Panthers center DeJuan Blair dominated the paint, finishing with 23 points and 22 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive glass. The Irish were outrebounded 49-30 and committed 11 turnovers while forcing just six. Harangody led the Irish with 27 points (on 25 shots) and 11 boards in defeat and Tory Jackson was held scoreless in a Big East contest for the first time in his college career.
In February 2008, the 21st ranked Irish prevailed in the teams' last meeting in South Bend, winning 82-70. Harangody scored 23 points and added 12 boards but the contest will be remembered for the heroics of the then-sophomore Jackson, who led all players with a career-high 13 rebounds in addition to 16 points and five assists without committing a turnover.
Stats and Streaks
- Pittsburgh leads the all-time series 27-26 and has won six of the last seven matchups
- Notre Dame has beaten Pittsburgh in nine of the Panthers last 13 visits to South Bend and Mike Brey is 6-8 all-time vs. the Panthers, including a 4-2 mark at home.
- Notre Dame ranks first nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.69), third in assists-per-game (17.9), 26th in team field goal percentage (.477), 16th in scoring offense (79.6) and fifth in three-point field goal percentage (.410).
- Ben Hansbrough ranks sixth nationally in terms of assist-to-turnover ratio. He's hit 45% of his three-point attempts this season, though his 120 shots from long-range does not qualify the senior guard for the nation's leader board.
- Tory Jackson has slipped to 9th place on the nation's assist-to-turnover ratio charts. The senior from Saginaw ranked 2nd prior to the start of the team's three-game losing skid (entering the Seton Hall contest on February 11. He ranks 21st nationally at 5.7 assists-per-game.
- Junior Tim Abromaitis ranks as the nation's leading three-point marksman. Both Abromaitis and Minnesota guard Blake Hoffarbar have connected on 49 percent of their offerings from beyond the arc, with Abromaitis attempting (8) and hitting (4) more than the Gophers' bomber entering tonight's contest. Abromaitis ranks 26th nationally in free throw percentage (87.5%) and 45th in field goal percentage (53.2%). He is the only player to rank among the nation's top 50 in each of the three main shooting categories.
Abromaitis was named 1st Team Academic All America by ESPN The Magazine, earlier this week. The junior from Uniondale, CT is the eighth player in program history to earn 1st Team All Academic Honors (Bob Arnzen, Gary Novak, Rich Branning, Kelly Tripucka, John Paxson, Pat Garrity and Chris Quinn).
- Notre Dame has been installed as a one-point favorite for tonight's contest.
PredictionThe fact that Notre Dame remains a one-point favorite despite the absence of Harangody points to three crucial factors/storylines for tonight's contest:
- The Irish remain a respected home team despite an 8-5 mark in South Bend since their record-tying 20-game conference win streak was snapped late last January.
- The Irish are expected to fight for their slim NCAA Tournament lives with the same vigor and focus shown in a widely-viewed and discussed loss at Louisville last week.
- Winning streaks are rare in the Big East. Pittsburgh's won five straight for the second time this season. The Panthers followed that first winning streak by dropping four of their next five contests. Things tend to even out in the nation's toughest conference.
Mike Brey's now-defunct "South Bend Seven" has given way to a 9-man unit (with the likely inclusion of Joey Brooks) that must rely on each other for every point, rebound, and defensive stop.
Both the crowd and the players should be energized by that recent development tonight (expect a wild cheer for both Jack Cooley and Mike Broghammer as well as Brooks tonight when they first enter the contest), but make no mistake, the Irish desperately need Harangody back in order to put together a winning streak and keep their slim Tourney hopes alive.
On the strength of the home crowd, team energy, and the law of averages, I'll take the Irish tonight...but any hope of successive victories lies in the return of the team's All American forward.