The 12-game win streak was the longest since the 1973-74 campaign when that Irish squad produced two 12-game win streaks during the season. ND beat two ranked teams in the stretch.
Much of the reason has been the balanced scoring. Notre Dame is averaging 85.3 points per game (third in the nation) and it has topped the 90-point mark eight times and scored 80-plus points 11 times. The Irish also rank third in margin of victory at 22.4 points per game.
Five players are averaging in double figures, including guard-forward combination Russell Carter (17.5) and Rob Kurz (14.8). Carter is a solid player, both on dribble drives and pull-up jumpers within the paint and from the outside. The senior averages 4.3 boards per game, and, at 6-4 and 200 pounds, flashes a shocking ability to hit the three-pointer. He has made 49 of 96 from behind the arc (46.9 percent). Kurtz, a do-everything four-man which will be a difficult match-up for Joe Alexander in the man defense, adds nearly a double-double per game at 14.8 points and 8.7 rebounds. He also has a team-best 24 blocks and 15 steals, second behind only Carter.
The duo has Big East experience, being a senior and junior, and have shown the capability to stay with any other team combo on offense. They will body-up the Mountaineers, and Carter, especially, plays a physical brand of defense unmatched by any other single player No. 21 West Virginia has faced.
Colin Falls and Kyle McAlarney also return for the Irish, with McAlarney inheriting the point guard slot after the graduation of Chris Quinn. However, McAlarney has been suspended following his arrest for possession of marijuana, which puts Tory Jackson, a 5-10 freshman, at the point. Jackson has better quickness than McAlarney, and has helped Notre Dame push the ball more effectively this season than Mike Brey's traditional setup has allowed it has in years.
Falls' outside shooting is well known – he is 34 of 95 this season – and he averages a team third-best 12.9 points.
Brey abandoned the center slot for a three-guard, two-forward look, though 6-11, 245-pound Luke Zeller, when he is in, serves the role effectively. His 16.7 minutes averaged per game are actually less than reserve Zach Hillesland's 17.5. Zeller has a finer outside touch, but lacks his counterpart's defensive savvy. He will not look for the post-up, but can shoot the mid-range jumper. He is 11 of 21 from three-point range.
Hillesland, who will probably play more against West Virginia because of his ability to guard inside and along the perimeter, is a driver and slasher who can, at times, take an opponent off the dribble. His primary asset is defense, and Notre Dame will use the tandem in an offense-defense rotation late in close games. He has twice started and Hits for 5.4 points and 4.5 boards per game.
Though Notre Dame has a rash of players inside, they lack a dominant center figure. Georgetown's size and inside tenacity severely limited the Irish, as they recorded their fewest points ever in 11 seasons of Big East play. That five-man hole could loom large against the Mountaineers defensively, as the Irish won't be able to simply throw the ball over the top of the 1-3-1, or post a player down low that finishes well. It could hurt WVU on offense, where the Mountaineers might be better guarded. Its centers, however, haven't provided major scoring this season, anyway.
WVU's main problem is that Notre Dame also has a tendency to explode suddenly. The return of Falls (out with shock therapy for the first three games to treat plantar fasciitis – an infection in his left foot that affects the fibrous band of tissue that connects the heal bone to the base of the toes) and his shooting has taken pressure off the inside game. It has also pulled foes away from the interior on both ends, allowing ND to rank 11th nationally in rebounding margin at plus-9.9. That has helped the team score more points, and against Maryland and Alabama, Notre Dame scored 50-plus points in the second half to pull away. The Mountaineers must continue to score and not allow the spurts that plagued other opponents.
Can West Virginia handle itself in its first major road test of the season? Will the Mountaineers wilt at Joyce Center, where they have won just twice in 15 games since the former Athletic and Convocation Center was renamed for the Rev. Edmond P. Joyce in 1987?
|Tue Jan 9|
WVU 13-1, 3-0
ND 13-2, 1-1
|Sirius Channel: 159|
WVU - 34
ND - 58
One plus is that the longer, more athletic West Virginia players should be better able to get a hand in Falls' face this year. The 6-5, 200-pounder shoots as well as any from the outside. But he is a set shooter whose height had aided him in past games, when he was bigger than his defender. With every WVU starter outside Darris Nichols at least 6-5 and more athletic than in the past, that is more of a non-issue than in the past. With Nichols flying out from the corners and players like 6-6 Alex Ruoff, the 6-8 Alexander and 6-7 Da'Sean Butler eyeing him in the 1-3-1 zone and within the base man defense, Falls might have a harder time getting open looks than in other games against the Mountaineers.
The leadership of Nichols and Young will loom large. Nichols admitted after the win over St. John's that took West Virginia to 13-1 and 3-0 in the Big East that road games are a different animal. He said that you can tell teammates about the road, but, like many things, it must be experienced to realize its full extent. Young, especially, did a great job of calming down teammates and keeping them into the game and not allowing chipiness to take away the calm but competitive edge against Connecticut. Thus far, Nichols has run the offense very well, choosing when to push and when to pull back and set the offense. That will be paramount on the road, when WVU's youth could make is susceptible to a quick, up-and-down game, or forcing too many quick shots. The mantra of not being able to make a 10-point shot must be followed.
Should West Virginia stay within itself and battle well on the boards, it has a chance if shots fall. And, with this team, maybe even if they don't because of its length and defense. This is the hardest match-up, because of the location, styles of player and depth of the Irish, in the next nine games. Steal one from the Joyce, and the rest of the slate sets up for a special run, indeed, even with the contest at Marquette looming.
ND: Kyle McAlarney (Suspension - Arrest) Out
Just when observers thought West Virginia might be counting on the three-pointer too much, the Mountaineers revved up their backdoor cuts and driving against St. John's. In West Virginia's previous outing against Villanova, the Mountaineers were 5-of-7 from two-point range. WVU appeared to be on the same path against the Red Storm when it made just three shots inside the arc in the first half. However, the Mountaineers made 13 in the second half, many of which came on backdoor cuts or as the result of drives and crisp interior passing.
The last time WVU made five or fewer two-point field goals in a game was on Jan. 17, 1931, a 17-15 loss to Pitt. WVU made five in that game. (As a side note, I asked basketball SID Bryan Messerly about this after the Nova game, and he didn't know. Sure enough, he came up with the info after what must have been some lengthy research. Just another reason that illustrates his professionalism and outstanding work.)
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The Irish have featured some big, strong front line players such as Jordan Cornette and Torin Francis over the past couple of years, but surprisingly weren't able to convert that muscle into the dominant rebounding advantage. This year, however, Notre Dame has parlayed a deep frontcourt rotation into great results on the glass. The Irish are currently outrebounding opponents 39.3 to 29.4 for a +9.9 advantage. That mark is good for the 11th spot nationally.
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With 70 assists, Alex Ruoff now leads the team in that category (Darris Nichols is second with 67). This stat illustrates two things: 1) West Virginia's offense doesn't run through just the point guard, so tactics such as that employed by Connecticut to keep the ball out of Nichols' hands might not be the most effective thing to try, and 2) to go along with his lightning quick hands and anticipatory skills, Ruoff is displaying a fine dose of court sense and understanding of the offense.
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Although the reasons for Notre Dame's inclusion in the Big East basketball conference are understandable, that shouldn't translate into such a favorable Big East schedule. Notre Dame's three home and home opponents are DePaul, South Florida and Villanova. The home and home with the Blue Demons makes sense due to regional interest, but South Florida? And wouldn't Georgetown make a better home and home foe?
What's worse, the Irish' two "no-plays" this year are Connecticut and Pittsburgh. How convenient.