Barring curious decision-making by the NCAA Selection Committee on Sunday, the 7th-seeded Irish will be among the Field of 64 for the third time in four seasons. The Pirates of Seton Hall are in a precarious position, despite a resume nearly as impressive as Notre Dame's.
Seton Hall finished tied for 9th at 9-9 in conference; one game behind the Irish. The Pirates received the No. 10 seed due to a head-to-head tiebreaker – an overtime loss to South Florida; another league team with an outside shot at an NCAA berth pending the result of its noon matchup with Georgetown.
The Pirates defeated Pittsburgh, Louisville and Notre Dame this season and eight of their nine losses in conference action occurred vs. teams bound for the Big Dance.
Seton Hall earned tonight's rematch with the Irish thanks to a 109-106 win over Providence last night, a game in which the Pirates led by 29 points with just under 14 minutes remaining.
Below is a closer look at tonight's prime time matchup between Notre Dame and Seton Hall. Tip-off is set for 7 pm on ESPN.
Brooklyn's FinestNotre Dame's February 11 loss to the Pirates was marked by two major stories: the loss of senior forward Luke Harangody to a right knee bruise; and the ridiculous shooting performance of Seton Hall junior guard Jeremy Hazell.
Hazell, who had previously erupted for 41 and 38 points in losses to West Virginia and Syracuse, torched the Irish for 35 points on a 12-16 effort from the field including a shocking 8-11 performance from beyond the arc.
When dialed in, no player in the country is more difficult to contain on the perimeter than the Brooklyn native, who's never met an off-balance 25-footer he wouldn't take or couldn't make.
Hazell has been bothered as of late by a recurring cut on the middle finger of his shooting hand, an injury that required stitches earlier this season and has opened up on occasion, a condition that obviously bothers Hazell's release (the scoring guard is just 7 of 29 from long range over the last five games and has topped the 20-point plateau just once since his explosion vs. the Irish).
Both Tory Jackson and Ben Hansbrough will attempt to bother Hazell over the course of tonight's contest, though Irish head coach Mike Brey would be wise to award Jackson the assignment from the outset, as Hazell has a huge mental edge facing Hansbrough who he scalded mercilessly in the first meeting.
Burn the Game TapeNotre Dame's "Burn" offense wasn't even in the embryonic stages the last time these teams met. You won't see a 90-87 final score between the teams in The Garden tonight. The Irish are now a team that controls tempo; takes pride in both its man-to-man and 2-3 zone defense; and protects its backboard after missed shots.
The latter emphasis will be of particular importance tonight vs. Pirates center Herb Pope, the Big East's leading rebounder. Pope has 36 offensive rebounds (and a whopping 96 total) in the Pirates' last eight games. Seton Hall has prevailed six of those contests and could again tonight if Tyrone Nash and Carleton Scott don't continue to battle for every errant shot. (Pope, it should be noted, is one of the free world's worst marksmen from the charity stripe, knocking down just 47.3 percent of his foul shots this season.)
Seton Hall's Support SystemThough Hazell and Pope are the team's most dangerous and ultimately effective weapons, Pirates power forward Jeff Robinson has likewise excelled during the Pirates' season-ending hot streak, averaging 15.7 points and 5.5 boards while connecting on 60 percent of his shots over an eight-game span. Robinson, a transfer from Memphis, is the team's second leading-scorer and rebounder on the season.
The quick-footed but undersized tandem of Jordan Theodore and Eugene Harvey has evolved into a two-headed point guard duo that helps The Hall run its up-tempo attack. Theodore is the better on-ball defender and will likely be used vs. Jackson in an attempt to limit the powerful senior's penetration.
The Pirates bring swingman Robert Mitchell; big-bodied John Garcia, and guard Keon Lawrence off the bench with Mitchell and Lawrence receiving regular playing time (both near 20 minutes per contest). Mitchell can score when called upon as he did vs. the Irish in a spot-start for Hazell in January 2009.
Don't Waste the WeaponMike Brey made the right decision when he announced that former All America candidate Luke Harangody would come off the bench for the rest of the season.
But if Harangody is relatively healthy, it would be a major mistake for Brey to continue with his "Sixth 'Men'" approach. Harangody and fellow senior captain Jonathan Peoples are not equal threats and should not be used as such (it made sense last Saturday at Marquette in Harangody's first game back).
Peoples is a third guard that can help defensively vs. smaller lineups and a player that provides an extra ball handler vs. heavy pressure teams.
Harangody is potentially the best college basketball player on the floor at all times.
Notre Dame's team defense and offensive continuity has improved greatly in his absence, and the Irish should not, and will not deviate from their new identity as a defensive-conscious, tough-minded rebounding team. Further, Harangody should not take minutes away from the multi-talented Carleton Scott who's playing at an All-Star level over the last three contests. But 20-25 minutes of playing time for Harangody would allow Scott, Nash, and Tim Abromaitis ample rest and fresh legs in the final five minutes of contests...a key ingredient in a tournament atmosphere.
Prior to Monday's team practice in South Bend, Harangody concurred with my belief that he needs extended minutes, rather than spot duty, to return to form or gain a meaningful rhythm in order to help the team down the stretch. The Irish are much better served with Harangody playing 7-8 consecutive minutes (assuming his conditioning and defensive intensity holds up) rather than spot duty throughout the course of a contest.
At best, he becomes the ultimate sixth-man weapon. Atworst, Harangody should be the most effective backup rebounder in college basketball for the remainder of the season…which fits right in with Notre Dame's new approach.
PredictionWithout The Burn, tonight's matchup would be a complete toss-up, and would likely hinge on Jeremy Hazell's ability to find a rhythm over the course of the contest. But the Irish of March differ greatly from the shaky group that took the floor earlier this season. They differe from any Irish team at any point during the Jackson/Harangody era, and to be blunt, from any during Notre Dame squad during the Brey era.
The team thrives on its new grinding style. It welcomes games decided by in-traffic rebounds, defensive stops, and long possessions that frustrate the opponent.
It has the confidence to win close games; and the fortitude to bleed an opponent's defense once it takes a multiple possession lead.
Seton Hall will attempt to push the pace, and the Pirates would likely prevail in a shootout.
A focused Notre Dame team won't let that happen.