Past Notre Dame teams featured long range shooting guards and bruising front lines, and while this year's edition is built in the same mold, the graduation of some key parts have left the Irish struggling in the powerful Big East.
In the backcourt, Chris Quinn and Colin Falls continue to light up the nets from beyond the arc. Both hit more than 40% of their threes, and, as a result, are 1-2 on the team in scoring. Quinn (Sr., 6-2, 185 lbs.) capitalizes on his open chances and also gets to the basket frequently, as his numbers attest. He averages 17.6 points per game, but also snares 4.1 boards while getting to the free throw line an average of four times per outing. Falls (Jr., 6-5, 205 lbs.) is the long-range gunner, firing up 155 three point attempts on his way to a 13.7 points per game average. Point guard Kyle McAlkarney (Fr., 6-1, 200 lbs.) has concentrated on distributing the ball, but is actually the best percentage shooter from downtown, hitting 45.6% of his treys. All three guards handle the ball well and are deadly from the foul line, which make them a difficult trio to defend. He has started just three games this year, and could yield his position to swingman Russell Carter (Jr., 6-4, 225 lbs.), which would put Quinn at the point guard for some stretches. Carter averages 9.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game, and gives the Irish more inside oomph.
On the front line, Torin Francis (Sr., 6-11, 250 lbs.) almost provides a double-double each night with 12.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. Beefy frontcourt mate Rob Kurz (So., 6-9, 240 lbs.) has been coming on strong of late and improving his averages, which stand at 6.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.
The Irish used to be able to bring waves of big, powerful frontliners off the bench in waves, but that capability has lessened a bit this year. Still, Rick Cornett (Sr., 6-9, 245 lbs.) chips in 4.7 points and 3.1 rebounds, along with a stout defensive presence, in the paint, while sometime starter Luke Zeller (Fr., 6-11, 240 lbs.) has had flashes of outstanding play. He averages 4.4 points and 4.5 rebounds in his 18 minutes per contest.
On paper, this looks like a clear advantage for WVU. The Irish are struggling just to make a run to get to the Big East tournament, while the Mountaineers are ensconced atop the league standings with an unblemished 6-0 record. However, the intangibles in this matchup go far beyond the records of each team.
|Wed Feb 1|
WVU 15-4, 6-0
ND 10-8, 1-6
WVU - 33
ND - 99
While this battle will have several key matchups on the floor (covering Chris Quinn and keeping Torin Francis from dominating the lane, just to name two), the most important parts of the game will likely be played from the neck up. This game, like the contest against Villanova in the Big East Tournament last year, will be a proving ground, another hurdle, for the hardy band of seniors wearing the real gold and blue. One of WVU's strengths has been maintaining its poise when things go badly, but this is the granddaddy of all such tests. When a few good bounces go Notre Dame's way, it can seem as if those damnable leprechauns are on the floor tipping balls away and directing crazy shots into the hoop. If West Virginia can avoid falling into that frame of mind, it has a good chance of extending its unbeaten league record.
That's not to say that the Irish aren't a capable team. It extended ranked foes Villanova and George Washington to the limit in its past two games, but came up just short in both. The question is, how many close calls and tough losses can it take before it falls into disarray? West Virginia, on the other hand, will have to adapt from playing a team that makes limited use of the three-pointer (St. John's) to a team that fires up 23.7 such shots per game.
Notre Dame's six losses in the Big East have come by a combined total of 22 points.
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West Virginia has made 196 three-pointers this year. It is 123 short of last year's school record of 319. Assuming the Mountaineers play two games in the Big East tournament and two in the NCAAs (we're trying to be conservative here), it would need to average 8.8 threes per game to set yet another school mark.
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The Irish's streak of winning league records over the past five years is in jeopardy. ND was last below the .500 mark in league play in the 1999-2000 season. The Irish would have to go 8-1 over its last nine league games to extend the streak.
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Notre Dame's 11-game winning streak against WVU is tied for the longest such sting in the conference. Somewhat surprisingly, Connecticut has an 11-game winning streak against Georgetown.
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In addition to the battle between Kevin Pittsnogle and Patrick Beilein for the three-point field goal career record (Beilein currently leads by four), there is another close contest being played our for record book supremacy. Pittsnogle is currently WVU's all-time career three-point field goal percentage leader at 42.0 percent, but Mike Gansey is hot on his heel (and third overall) at 41.0 percent. Should both players continue on their current paces, Gansey would pass Pittsnogle before season's end.