Let the Bodies Hit the Floor

IrishEyes previews tonight's Big East Quarterfinal matchup between always physical Pittsburgh and suddenly surly Notre Dame.

The best defensive team in the Big East this season faces off vs. one of the best defensive teams in the nation over the last three weeks when No.2 Pittsburgh takes on No. 7 Notre Dame tonight in the Big East Quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden.

The matchup pits two of the conferences' hottest programs: the seventh-seed Irish bring a five-game winning streak, one that began with a 15-point win over the Panthers on February 25, while Pittsburgh won 8 of its last 9 to earn a second-place finish in the regular season standings.

Pittsburgh held opponents to a 39.8 percent clip from the field this season, a figure that included a 30.9 percent defensive effort defending the three-point line.

The Panthers renowned defensive effort was lacking in the aforementioned matchup between the teams at the Purcell Pavilion as the Irish buried 10 of 18 three-point attempts and shot 50 percent from the field for the contest.

Pittsburgh, on the other hand, struggled mightily, hitting just 4 of 18 shots from long range and 41.8 percent overall.

Below is a closer look at tonight's prime time matchup between the Panthers and the Irish. Tip-off is set for 7 pm on ESPN.

"'Aint Gonna Be Like Last Time"

The immortal words of Clubber Lang circa 1983 ring true 27 years later: tonight's contest will not resemble the surgical destruction Notre Dame imposed on Pittsburgh on February 25.

The Irish owned the boards, continually broke open for and knocked down shots as the possession-clock expired, and limited the Panthers to seven free throw attempts in the 40-minute contest.

Notre Dame led by double digits for the final 19:30.

Held in check during the teams' first tussle was Pittsburgh leading-scorer and winner of the Big East's Most Improved Player award, Ashton Gibbs. The nation's best set-shooting marksman finished with a quiet 11 points on nine field goal attempts (3-6 from beyond the arc).

Also below their usual level of production were guards Brad Wannamaker (9 points/8 shots) and Jermaine Dixon (13 points/13 shots) as the Irish trio of Tim Abromaitis, Tory Jackson, and Ben Hansbrough's perimeter defensive efforts were aided by the collapsing interior defense provided by junior forwards Carleton Scott and Tyrone Nash.

Wannamaker will likely be checked by Hansbrough again tonight as the Irish need Jackson, as well as third-guard Jonathan Peoples, to shadow the explosive Gibbs, a player who could explode for a one-man Garden Party Wednesday night if allowed clean early looks.

Notre Dame's shooting efficiency has bottomed out since the teams last met: the Irish have hit just 17 of their last 70 three-point offerings and connected on just 69 percent of their shots from the charity stripe over the last four outings. The latter figure could play an integral role in what should be a possession-by-possession battle tonight.

A Struggling Pair and the Streaking Savoir

Lost in Notre Dame's recent winning streak (and forgiven by the marvelous team defensive effort) have been the three and four-game struggles by Irish guard Ben Hansbrough and forward Tim Abromaitis.

Since a 7 of 10 shooting effort (22 points) at Georgetown on February 27, Hansbrough has hit just 1 of his last 15 three-point field goal attempts and 3 of his last 23 from the field overall. The senior guard had tallied double figures in eight consecutive prior to the slump.

Equally shaky as of late, as least from beyond the arc, is Abromaitis, who prior to this current four-game slump was the nation's leading three-point shooter at 49 percent. Since the team's February 25 win over Pittsburgh, a game in which Abromaitis connected on 5 of 9 shots including 3 of 5 from long range for a game-high 17 points, the redshirt-junior has hit just 3 of his 22 three-point attempts while grinding out 19 buckets in 53 total field goal attempts.

Conversely, senior leader and team heartbeat Tory Jackson has emerged to play the best basketball of his career. Jackson, who earlier this conference season missed 25 of 31 shots in one stretch, has hit 26 of 50 field goal attempts during the five game winning streak.

The Irish Ironman played 203 of 205 possible minutes in the five-game span and has gone to the bench for a breather in just four of the team's last 335 game minutes (an 8-game/3-overtime span).

Jackson averages 40.7 minutes per game in Big East competition, a remarkable stat considering a regulation college basketball game lasts 40 minutes.

Get the Women and Children off the Baseline

If you're a fan of free-flowing offense; undeterred penetration; and high-flying theatrics, tonight's Quarterfinal matchup at The Garden is not for you.

Multiple bodies promise to hit The Garden floor in tonight's battle of wills. Luke Harangody, Tyrone Nash, Carleton Scott, Jack Cooley and TIm Abromaitis will tussle with Gary McGhee, Nasir Robinson, Dante Taylor, Gilbert Brown, and J.J. Richardson in and beyond the paint.

The quintet above that protects its backboard and has the fortitude to finish through certain contact will determine tonight's winner.

The Panthers have always thrived in that atmosphere. The late-2010 Irish are more than up for the challenge.

The two mentally focused units will offer a duel-defensive gem tonight in Manhattan, with the winner unlikely to top 65 points in regulation. Mike Brey's Irish have one more rally in them before fatigue sets in tomorrow night.

Notre Dame 63 Pittsburgh 60

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