UPDATING THE IRISH
Notre Dame continues to roll with arguably its most impressive winning streak under head coach Mike Brey. The Irish have a school-record eight consecutive Big East victories, including a 55-51 win at WVU, and sit tied for second place (Marquette) in the Big East with 11 wins in 15 league games – making Brey a prime candidate for Coach of the Year honors. ND is 14-1 at home this season, and has defeated West Virginia 10 straight times at the Joyce Center, the last Mountaineer win coming 16 years ago.
If ever a streak could be broken, now would be the time for WVU. The Mountaineers still sit nicely in terms of NCAA Tournament positioning, with a likely 10-seed for now. But with tonight's contest at No. 20 Notre Dame followed by a 48-hour turnaround vs. No. 10 Marquette and arguable must-wins against DePaul and South Florida, it seems there are just a couple chances left for a marquee, bracket-boosting win – and Notre Dame is a far better match-up than the up-and-down, fast-paced Eagles. West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins has noted the pacing of this game could be exactly what the Mountaineers need. WVU got its grinder in the home series loss, but, again, couldn't finish when needed.
Tranistion defense again looms large. The Irish can score from anywhere on the floor, and forcing them to work clock and navigate man pressure to find decent looks is paramount. Frankly, WVU isn't effective enough in scoring in a night-in and –out basis to allow easier buckets. The Mountaineers guarded ball screens much more effectively in a solid win at Pitt, and were able to match body-for-body on the boards, limiting the Panthers to single shots most of the game. That must happen again. Huggins has said his team will change up the way they guard ball screens, varying the approach to keep foes guessing in terms of attacking.
Check rebounding numbers. If either team is getting a multitude of second opportunities, the chances that team has a lead are good. If West Virginia can do the basic things, and do them for 40 minutes (or longer, as needed), this is a winnable game because the player-by-player match-ups are decent. Notre Dame doesn't blow by a defense and score getting to the rim because of quickness. It's more ball movement and second shots. The Irish are methodical, they can shoot it from the outside, and they limit turnovers and self-inflicted wounds. The mantra: Rebound, take heady shots within the offensive system and convert at the free throw line. Add in effective, savvy on-ball guarding, and WVU has a legit shot here. But it can't chase. Down 27-16, ND was able to be even more selective with shots. Still, West Virginia had it chances and rallied, only to again fold.
Even teams that play fast and press adequately haven't been very effective in slowing Notre Dame, so that can't be West Virginia's approach. The Irish were down 20 against Villanova, and rallied to win by four in overtime. They simply make too many shots from a variety of spots to self-limit on the other end and try to run clock. If there's a flow to the game – this one should be choppy – it has to develop naturally and within what both teams desire to accomplish.
WVU 17-10, 7-7
ND 19-8, 11-3
|Sirius: 129 (ND)|
WVU - 40
ND - 38
Watch how West Virginia approaches the task. It is simply slinging the ball around the perimeter, is it stagnant on offense, a lot of standing and pointing to other players as to where to go. Or does it truly try to attack inside-out, getting the ball to the blocks or high post or along the foul line, the "teeth of the zone," as Huggins called it, before whipping it back beyond the arc for a better shot with people in rebounding position? Again, the Mountaineers must be shot savvy, and know when to take them (i.e. not when Jones is away from the bucket), but also know who to set up for the best possible success.
The Mountaineers, after hitting the proverbial wall psychologically and perhaps physically, have had as much recent time off as one could expect in a collegiate season. This is just the second game in 11 days, a stretch often unseen at this level, and it has given the coaching staff time to prep and practice some of the early issues and give players mental and physical time away from the game. That should help, and it seemed there was a better bounce to the step, and better mental play, against Pitt. The 24-point difference against one foe from game to game is as big as can be recalled from recent memory, and it appeared West Virginia wanted to play, wanted to battle for rebounds and loose balls and to, indeed, get back to .500 in league play. It will be apparent early on if that same desire is there in another tough road environment. Are the Mountaineers probing, working at opportunities on both ends, or are they going through the motions in the motion offense? Are the defensive switches quick and crisp? Are there intelligent decisions being made?
Only two players in West Virginia history (Jerry West and Warren Baker) have scored more than 1,000 points and tallied more than 1,000 rebounds. Kevin Jones enters the Notre Dame game with 1,717 points and 993 rebounds. It really has been an incredible career and season for the senior, who averages a double-double and is a lock for first-team All-Big East honors.
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Bob Huggins is 4-3 against Notre Dame while at West Virginia as a coach. He was 1-1 as a player, his 14 points helping best the Irish on Feb. 19, 1977 in among the games he recalls as most memorable. Current ESPN analyst Digger Phelps coached Notre Dame that game and will be part of the broadcast crew tonight.
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West Virginia has struggled shooting the ball, and how that goes is largely how this team has gone. The Mountaineers have shot 49.1 percent in its wins, 39.1 percent in losses. Free throw percentages, at 66.9 and 65.0, don't seem to have the same impact. Free throw attempts, however, at 25.2 and 17.7, do. West Virginia has made 35 percent of its threes in wins, 26 in losses.
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Notre Dame's 20-point comeback win over Villanova was the largest in program history. The Irish trailed by 17 in the game in which it snapped No. 1 UCLA's 88-game winning streak in 1974.
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West Virginia's schedule strength was rated seventh in the latest CollegeRPI.com rankings. The Mountaineers have played a top 10 ranked schedule the last four seasons.