But as one of the "Last Four In" at present, the Irish can further state their case with an upset victory over the Big East's hottest team, Marquette this afternoon in Milwaukee.
Though Notre Dame is not in a "must-win" situation today (a loss to Marquette is not damaging, and would actually aid Notre Dame's RPI), a win would likely ensure an NCAA berth as the Irish would then finish seventh in the conference standings, ensuring a bye and opening game on Wednesday of next week's Big East Tournament.
With a loss today, the Irish would likely need to win their first Big East Tournament game next week to secure a bid. That game would occur on either Tuesday or Wednesday depending upon the results of four other conference games to be played today.
Below is a look at today's contest between the Golden Eagles and the Irish. Tip-off is set for 2 pm (ET).
Meet the Golden Eagles: Key MatchupsHead coach Buzz Williams has done a remarkable job this season, his second at the helm in Milwaukee. The Golden Eagles were forced to replace three stars in Wesley Matthews, Dominic James, and 1st Team All Big East guard Jerel McNeal and Williams kept his troops on course.
Following consecutive tough losses to Top 10 squads West Virginia and Villanova and a 2-5 start to begin the conference season, Marquette has since flourished, winning 9 of 10 to secure a fifth-place Big East finish. The Golden Eagles were picked to finish 12th in the Big East coach's pre-season poll.
- Lazar Hayward leads the Golden Eagles in scoring (18.0 per game) rebounds per game (8.0), and free throw percentage, knocking down 84 percent of his 113 attempts this season. The 6'6" solidly-built senior is a candidate for the conference's all-defensive team, regularly guarding bigger opponents due to his team's undersized front line.
Hayward's strong hands and intensity will make life difficult for Tyrone Nash in a likely low-block matchup this afternoon. Hayward likewise has the versatility to stay with Irish shooting threat Tim Abromaitis on the wing and seal off Notre Dame's second-leading scorer on flashes through the lane and his constant backdoor cuts.
- If not for Abromaitis, Golden Eagles swingman Jimmy Butler would be in line for the Big East's Most Improved Player award. The 6'6" junior has improved his play across the board, averaging 15.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.2 steals through 29 games this season. Butler works his way to the hoop with determined penetration, knocking down 54 percent of his shots including a judicious 14 for 28 effort from beyond the arc.
Butler will present a difficult matchup for either Abromaitis or Carleton Scott this afternoon in Milwaukee.
- Darius Johnson-Odom is an explosive scoring guard. At 6'2" Johnson-Odom is a dual-threat as a scoring; he goes hard to the hole in penetration and has buried just under 49 percent of his 135 attempts from long range this season.
Tremendous with the ball in his hands, the lefty threat will likely draw Tory Jackson defensively today, though Irish head coach Mike Brey would be wise to use senior off-guard Ben Hansbrough for spells defensively as well (look for Hansbrough to begin the game on Johnson-Odom and for Jackson to switch to the Golden Eagles scorer in the second stanza.)
- Diminutive senior Maurice Acker runs the show this year at the point. He's knocked down 42 of 88 three-point attempts en route to 8.6 points per game. Like the majority of the Golden Eagles, he's a solid free throw shooter (76.6 percent), has good hands defensively (one of four players averaging more than a steal per game at 1.3) and leads the team with 3.6 assists per game. More important, Acker protects the basketball with a solid 3.1/1 assist-to-turnover ratio, which ranks third nationally.
- 6'0" senior David Cubillan has upped his minutes per game from 9.5 in 2009 to 30.4 this year. Like Acker, Cubillan is smart with the basketball (2.93 assist/turnover ratio) and has recently joined his teammates in ball thievery, securing seven steals over Marquette's last four outings. Cubillan has hit 37 of 96 from long range including a 6 for 6 effort from beyond the arc in a January win over Georgetown.
- The Golden Eagles offer a bench as thin as their Saturday visitors. Junior transfer Dwight Buycks technically averages 25 minutes of court time for the season but he's missed the team's last two contests due to illness. Buycks started the Golden Eagles' first four conference games this season, averaging 10 points in more than 37 minutes of playing time. 6'7" junior forward Joseph Fulce should receive time as well> Fulce has reached double figures in two of his last four after failing to score in the preceding four outings.
- Whom to Foul? Would you believe, "nobody"? Of Marquette's seven listed contributors above, only Johnson-Odom (63.2 percent) has hit fewer than 73 percent of his free throw attempts this season. The entire starting five shoots between 75 and 84 percent.
The Last TimeMarquette defeated the Irish 71-64 at the Joyce Center last January. The defeat was Notre Dame's second home loss in less than 48 hours and followed a streak in which the Irish had won 20 consecutive home games vs. Big East foes and 45 straight in South Bend overall.
Jerel McNeal led the Golden Eagles with 27 points while Luke Harangody paced the Irish with 29 ponts and 17 rebounds.
Series Stats and Current Streaks
- This will be the 113th meeting between Marquette and Notre Dame. The Irish lead the series 77-35.
- Mike Brey is 3-6 at ND vs. the Golden Eagles, including an 0-3 mark in Milwaukee.
- Marquette has won three of the last four meetings and five of the last seven since 2006, including an 89-79 win over the Irish in the Quarterfinals of the 2008 Big East Tournament.
- The Irish have not defeated Marquette in Milwaukee since 1994 (though that period includes just four losses).
- Notre Dame's current three-game conference win streak is its longest since the 2008 squad put together a five-game streak that ended in mid-February.
- Marquette has won four straight and nine of its last 10 conference matchups. The Golden Eagles won nine consecutive games to begin their conference season last year, but stumbled to a 3-5 finish, due largely to the season-ending foot injury suffered by senior point guard Dominic James.
- Notre Dame has just two wins in eight conference road games this season,
- Marquette has been installed as a 7-point favorite for today's contest.
PredictionThe Irish encounter one of the best perimeter defenses in the conference and ball protection will be at a premium vs. the Golden Eagles sticky hands.
No Big East team outperformed its expectations more so than Marquette this season. They're mentally tough, blessed with quick feet, and have compensated for their undersized lineup by ably fronting the post and challenging every pass in their half court defense.
Marquette is the best three-point shooting team the Irish have faced this season (No. 6 in the nation) and their team quickness poses a true test for the suddenly formidable Notre Dame team defense.
Buzz Williams' dedicated defensive crew is ideally suited to stifle Notre Dame's "Burn" offense, as each Marquette defender can get down in a defensive stance and force a bad shot/key stop when called up.
A loss doesn't knock Notre Dame out of the NCAA Tournament, but does turn next week's performance in Madison Square Garden into a Field of 64 audition for the gang from South Bend.
Marquette might be the only team playing with a bigger chip on its shoulder than the rejuvenated Irish…and it's been there all season for the Golden Eagles.
New York and the Big East Tournament will decide Notre Dame's post-season fate.